Anxious time for laid-off workers as unemployment-benefit program expires

Mildred Miller was just notified that her unemployment benefits will be cut off two weeks before Christmas. She can't think about it without breaking down.

"I don't know what I'm going to do; I really don't know," Miller said Monday, her eyes welling with tears as she scanned job listings at Baltimore County's work force development center in Essex. "I don't want to get evicted. If we get on the street, I don't know where we'll be."

The Middle River resident, a single mother with a 6-year-old son, is one of thousands in Maryland and about 2 million nationwide whose payments will be phased out in December if the federally funded emergency unemployment compensation program expires Tuesday as planned. She hopes her long job search finally bears some fruit — or that Congress steps in.

The prospect of losing benefits left many unemployed residents fearful about the future, as some officials at workforce development centers in the state say they've seen rising anxiety among job seekers. The looming cutoff also sparked a protest in Baltimore Monday night.

"There's a lot of reasons we're out here, but most of all, it's a feeling of frustration and anger," said Sharon Black, coordinator of the Job Is a Right Campaign, which organized the protest outside a state unemployment office. The new Baltimore group aims to be a union of the unemployed.

Congress has extended the emergency benefits before. But the measure has become increasingly controversial as Republicans — and some Democrats — argue that something must be done about the ballooning deficit.

Supporters of the program say it's a critical safety net at a time when five unemployed people are competing for every job opening. U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, thinks an extension has a "fairly decent chance" of passing — possibly this week. But any extension could end up being short-lived, he said.

"We've been spending a phenomenal amount of time arguing over whether rich people should continue to get tax cuts, and we're talking about some 2 million people — unemployed people — who won't even have a check to have the taxes cut on," Cummings said Monday.

The emergency payments extended benefits from the usual 26 weeks to 73 in Maryland and 99 in the hardest-hit states. As the program phases out, those who haven't already started collecting the emergency benefits won't get to start. Many who are now receiving the payments will no longer get them after a total of either 46 or 60 weeks, depending on when they were laid off.

Alpha Koroma, who lives in Fulton in Howard County, counts himself fortunate — in a manner of speaking. If he were hitting 60 weeks now, he'd be cut off. Instead, his 60-week mark came mid-month, which means under program rules that he can collect through early next year if he can't find employment before then.

Koroma, 48, is an accountant whose job at a federal contractor was cut. Never in his wildest nightmares, he said, did he think he would still be searching for a replacement nearly 14 months later. Employers with open positions seem overwhelmed by the number of choices they have, he said.

"I am in here every day, looking for a job," said Koroma, sitting at a computer at the government-run Columbia Workforce Center. "I look for a job eight hours a day, every day."

In a room down the hall, about 20 men and women who were more recently laid off gathered for an "early intervention" session that aimed to connect them with resources such as interview coaching.

"In this economy today, we all need help," said the workshop's leader, Jose Torres-Reyes.

His audience was white-collar and blue-collar. They had been administrative assistants. Mechanics. An assisted-living facility manager. A language analyst. A computer programmer.

"A lot of talent," Torres-Reyes said to the crowd. "Are these people you would expect to be unemployed? What does that tell you?"

"Nobody is safe," one of his workshop participants replied.

Miller, 42, said she was shocked in October 2009 when she lost her job at Walmart in Dundalk. She got her hopes up last month when she was called in for an interview at a Kohl's store but soon received a rejection letter. She was told that more than 200 people had applied for 10 openings.

She has applied to numerous retail and warehouse jobs but says she is limited by her dependence on public transportation — she hasn't been able to raise the $850 needed to repair her 1993 Camry. She's hoping she can arrange child care that would give her more flexibility on hours. She's thinking of trying for overnight shifts, leaving her six-year-old son with a friend at night.

Her unemployment checks have kept a roof over their heads, she said. But that's about all the money can cover. She said she has relied on food stamps for meals.

"I don't go shopping anymore," Miller said. "I don't have money to shop."

Emergency benefits phasing out

The emergency unemployment compensation program that gave laid-off workers payments beyond the normal 26 weeks is set to expire Tuesday. Those who haven't already begun collecting the extended benefits won't be able to start. Residents receiving the payments will see them phase out at the end of their "tier," cutting them off at either a total of 46 weeks or 60 weeks if they're not already in tier three, which ends at 73 weeks.

The National Employment Law Project estimates that about 14,000 Marylanders will see their benefits stop in December, with more scheduled for cut off in early 2011.

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