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Spokane woman no longer unemployed, but still struggling


JoAnn Thomas is back to work, and just in time.

Thomas is a 59-year-old Spokane woman who exhausted her unemployment insurance a month ago. She’d lost her job in 2007, and had spent the intervening years looking for work, drawing unemployment, and earning a part-time minimum-wage paycheck through an AARP program – helping others look for work.

A month ago, she was beside herself with worry. She wasn’t sure how she’d stay in her $550-a-month rental home in Hillyard, where she lives with her 15-year-old son. She was featured in this column as one of the “99ers” – the growing wave of people here and across the country who were exhausting their 99 weeks of jobless benefits. (That’s the typical 26 weeks, plus various extensions.)

In Washington state right now, some 800 people a week are running out of benefits, and the jobless rate remains stuck at 10 percent.

Thomas received an outpouring of support after she appeared in the paper. People gave her money and offered her places to live and other help. But no job at first – that came after the response died down, when she landed a position as an accounts manager at Cougar Wireless, a local wireless company.

Now she needs to catch up on the rent.

“I finally got a full-time job, and I’m really happy about that,” she said. “Now it’s just digging out of the hole.”

Rejection, with interest

A column about Jim and Sheri Shafer, who found themselves tangled up in a bureaucratic nightmare over their attempts to modify their home loan, prompted several readers to contact me with similar stories.

The calls had a pattern: Homeowners get behind on their loan payment. They seek help from the bank to lower payments or catch up. The bank spends months or even years “processing” the request, while the homeowner pays a lower amount on a trial basis.

Then the bank rejects their modification, and says the homeowner now owes thousands in back payments and fees. A foreclosure threat is sometimes the bow on the package.

For one couple, Gary and Carol Riese, uncertainty over their loan began five years ago when Gary fell ill, and they got behind on their payments.

They sought a repayment plan that would allow them to stay in their home – opening a three-year period of shifting sands. They paid extra each month to try and catch up, while the possibility of a loan modification was held up by their lender, JP Morgan Chase, as an eventual solution.

“They kept telling us, ‘We’ll do a modification,’ ” said Gary Riese, a 61-year-old who’s retired from Kaiser Aluminum.

Over the past several months, Carol Riese, a nurse at Deaconess, called Chase to find out the status. She said she was “always told our papers are almost finished and should be in the mail soon for us to sign.”

Then in early April, they were rejected for a loan modification. And told they owed more than $9,000 in fees.

They raided Carol Riese’s retirement savings to foot the bill.

Chase doesn’t comment on specific loans. A spokeswoman told me earlier that these delays are often the result of homeowners failing to provide the proper paperwork, and that the bank is trying to do the right thing and help homeowners.

Among banks that are offering loan modifications under the new federal program intended to help people stave off foreclosure, Chase has accumulated the lion’s share of backlogged applications. According to the excellent investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica, about 1 million people have entered “trial modifications” in the past year, which are intended to lower payments for three months while applications are processed. As of a month ago, fewer than one-fifth of those had been made permanent and about 9 percent have gone on longer than six months. Chase is responsible for two-thirds of those.

The Rieses aren’t surprised.

“The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing with Chase,” Gary Riese said. “I don’t care how many billions they make.”

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