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Tales from the unemployment line

Sun., Sept. 27, 2009

Michael Vacciano’s year of looking for work in Spokane finally ended.

With a job in Alabama.

Vacciano moved here a year ago to be with his new wife and her kids, following a 10-year career in law enforcement in Alabama. After a year of ups and downs trying to get full-time work as a long-haul truck driver, he decided to fly back to Birmingham and take a job there. His family will stay here, and he’ll see them when he can.

“They’ll try to route me up there if they can, so that’ll be good,” he said.

Not that long ago, the 39-year-old Vacciano earned $38,000 a year. Recently, he’d been heading to Spokane’s WorkSource office, applying for jobs well below that salary – and getting no bites. His wife had been laid off in February from her job with a private investigation service.

He didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits because he hadn’t built up a record of earnings while he was trying to establish himself as a truck driver. The joblessness was tearing through the family’s savings. They rented a home in Spokane Valley, more modest than the one he’d had before. He sold his pickup and bought a motorcycle to save on gas.

“I just keep thinking it’s going to get better,” he said.

But every time he went to apply for a job, he found intense competition. Spokane County’s jobless rate – perhaps the most important measure of the economy’s general health for average people – is at 8.5 percent. In Kootenai County, it’s 10 percent.

Vacciano recalls looking at one posting for a plum job that had 4,000 applicants.

“I’ve never seen anything like that in my life,” he said. “It’s like trying to win the lottery.”

Here are a few other stories of people looking for work, from interviews at Spokane’s WorkSource office:

Joseph Barnes came to Spokane less than two months ago, after a family crisis forced him to leave his home in Grants Pass, Ore.

A 47-year-old truck driver who had retired early, Barnes needed to find work when he landed here – and he hasn’t had any luck so far.

“I’ve put in 55 applications, and I’ve only been here 49 days,” he said.

Barnes and his 8-year-old son were homeless for a while when they first arrived, but he said he’s gotten help from a variety of places, from getting an apartment to assistance preparing a résumé.

“All the community resources in this town put a smile on my face,” said Barnes.

He keeps a folder full of job information, résumés and contacts for possible positions. He says he’s looking for “anything, really.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers.”

Jeffrey Wolf lost his job at a local nonprofit last winter.

He went from making around $40,000 a year to applying for jobs that pay $11 an hour – and not even landing interviews.

“It’s been very tough,” said the 29-year-old Spokane man. “Even positions I feel like I’m overly qualified for, I get very few callbacks.”

Wolf has lived in Spokane for four years. He and his fiancée have an infant daughter; unemployment insurance and some savings are keeping the mortgage paid for now. He’s also working toward an MBA through Eastern Washington University.

“It’s a difficult time,” he said. “Hopefully, I can come back stronger.”

Denise moved to Spokane when she “fell through the safety net,” she said.

A 52-year-old who asked to be identified by only her first name, Denise was forced to move in with her daughter here after she was laid off from her job at a church nonprofit in California.

Because her employer didn’t pay unemployment taxes, she didn’t qualify for jobless benefits. Now she’s looking for work in Spokane and applying for jobs well below her skill level, including janitorial and laundry jobs.

But the answer is always the same, so far: “No, thank you.”

For now, she’s being supported by her daughter, who draws Social Security benefits and has an income from her membership in a local Indian tribe, Denise said.

“It’s humiliating and embarrassing to be relying on your child,” she said.

Donald Jackson is trying to figure out how he can keep training for a new career without an income.

A single, 51-year-old veteran of the Marine Corps, Jackson is trying to earn an associate’s degree in alcohol dependency counseling. He got a federal grant to help cover tuition and books, with a little extra.

He gets a disability check of $500 a month, but his jobless benefits of $150 a week are important to letting him continue his education, he said. He’s not sure whether he’ll be able to keep them, though – or whether if he does keep them, he’ll have to continue making four job contacts a week, as is typically required.

“If someone were to come along and offer me a job, I’d be hard-pressed to quit school to take it,” he said.

Jackson worked as a pawn broker for several years, but two consecutive pawn shops where he worked went out of business. “And there went my livelihood,” he said.

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