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Statistics point to economic recovery; jobseekers still in wait

JoAnn Thomas has only one more unemployment check coming before the program ends for her. She figures she will have to move out of her northeast Spokane rental house and away from her garden. “What will I do without my garden?” she says. (Dan Pelle)
JoAnn Thomas has only one more unemployment check coming before the program ends for her. She figures she will have to move out of her northeast Spokane rental house and away from her garden. “What will I do without my garden?” she says. (Dan Pelle)

Those facing an end to jobless benefits will believe it when they find work

JoAnn Thomas is at the front of a wave. But she feels more like it’s about to crash into her.

Next week, Thomas’ final unemployment

check arrives. One hundred and seventy-three dollars. Then she’ll join the swelling ranks of people who have exhausted their jobless benefits – burned through regular benefits and the varieties of extensions, all without finding a job.

“What do we do?” she asked. “What do people like us do?”

Thomas, 59, lives in a $550-a-month rental home in Hillyard with her 15-year-old son, who needs special care. As it is – with her unemployment income offset by the minimum-wage checks she gets through an AARP program – she can’t afford medicine or new clothes for a growing teenager. If the cavalry doesn’t appear pretty soon, things are going to get worse.

“It takes a large toll on my health, the stress,” she said. “You don’t sleep well. You don’t eat. It makes you sick. This horrible recession – at some point, a person switches from actually living their life to survival mode. Which is not really living.”

For a lot of people who, like Thomas, lost jobs in this recession, the cruelest month came a little earlier than April. In March, some 8,000 Washington residents exhausted their jobless benefits – which now stretch up to 99 weeks counting extensions.

In the next three months, 800 people a week will run out of benefits, said Sheryl Hutchison, communications director for Washington’s WorkSource, the state’s employment benefits and training agency.

“Then it’s going to start going up really fast,” she said.

It’s the same story everywhere. In Idaho, some 216 people exhausted benefits in March, more than triple the month before. Nationally, it’s expected to reach a total of 1 million by the end of April.

Some of those people, who were caught between different extension programs when Congress weaseled out of town for a vacation, might still see some more short-term relief. But most of them – those who’ve hit their 99 weeks – won’t, at least not under anything proposed now.

In the face of that, talk of a recovery seems theoretical and out of touch. Some signs of life have materialized – this or that index showing grudgingly minor progress. But there are still a whole lot of people out of work, with the jobless rate at about 10 percent here and nationwide.

And don’t forget “discouraged workers” – the 1 million or so people who have stopped looking for work and who aren’t counted in the unemployment rate, according to federal statistics. More than 9 million people are working part time but want full-time jobs.

Thomas is less worried about the numbers and more worried about the essentials. Like a place to live. Once her unemployment checks stop coming, she’ll get about $600 a month through the AARP program.

“I’m looking at probably having to give up my house,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do then.”

She’s been unemployed since the engine-repair shop where she kept the books was sold in December 2007. Since then, she’s worked three part-time jobs – and lost each of them when the struggling businesses couldn’t afford to keep her, she said.

“I’m not proud,” she said. “I’d take a job doing about anything I’m physically able to do, and I’d be happy to have the job.”

Here’s how we’ll really be able to spot a recovery: When people like Thomas, who want and need work, can find it in less than two years of looking.

Call it the “people like us” index. Until then, it’s only talk.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.

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