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For jobless LIers, desperation becomes way of life

Prospective employees use computers to search for jobs

Prospective employees use computers to search for jobs at the Suffolk County One-Stop Employment Center in Hauppauge Friday, March 21, 2014. Credit: Barry Sloan

Growing numbers of jobless Long Islanders are struggling to survive with little to no income since extended federal unemployment benefits ended in December.

Despite improving local unemployment rates and job growth, thousands of long-term unemployed are still unable to find work, and now many say they are running out of money to meet even basic expenses.

A bipartisan compromise was reached recently in the U.S. Senate to provide extended benefits through May, retroactive to December, but it faces an uncertain fate in the House.

Anita Puzzele, 56, of Mastic Beach, is among those who lost those benefits in December and is finding her situation increasingly dire.

"You don't want to have to go to charities for help, but you have to," said Puzzele, who lost her job last year as general manager of a chain restaurant where she made $52,000 annually. Her unemployment insurance benefits decreased to $328.13 from $405 a week over the year she received them. Now her 69-year-old husband's Social Security pays the mortgage but little else on high-cost Long Island, she said.

She asked charities, unsuccessfully so far, for help in paying two oil bills, and friends and family assisted with recent electric bills, she said. The couple have nearly depleted a 401(k) account.

Before losing her benefits, "It was tight but it was manageable," she said. "Now without the unemployment insurance, it's unbearable. I can't keep asking friends and family for help because they know I can't pay them back."

When Congress allowed extended benefits to lapse in December, 1.3 million Americans, including 13,699 unemployed Long Islanders, were left without the income. In the months since, more than 4,135 Long Islanders have come to the end of their 26 weeks of state benefits without the prospect of any federal help. Under the recent emergency compensation program, benefits -- including both regular and extended benefits -- had at one time lasted as long as 99 weeks in states where unemployment was worst but had been limited to 73 weeks by the time extended benefits ended in December.

Federal benefits have supplemented state benefits in times of high unemployment since 1970, with full federal payment for extended benefits enacted in February 2009. Extended benefits with costs shared by federal and state governments can be triggered when unemployment rates spike, but none are in effect. About 28,500 Long Islanders currently receive regular state benefits, and each week more will see those benefits expire, leaving most with little or no income.

The state Labor Department recently reported that Long Island's unemployment rate had dropped to 5.9 percent in January, compared to 7.7 percent a year earlier.


'Everything is worrying'

But the good news hasn't yet helped a 40-year-old Suffolk County woman, who asked to be identified only by her middle name, Jimena. She said she never expected she would still be unemployed more than a year after losing her job as a sales rep making $70,000 a year plus commissions.

"I haven't gotten unemployment insurance since December, and now I don't have a dollar to my name," she said, noting her savings are depleted and her credit cards are nearly maxed out.

"For the last month and a half I haven't been able to sleep; I don't eat anymore. It's just like everything is worrying."

She added, tearfully, "I feel like I'm in a hole and I don't know how to get out."

Older and long-term unemployed workers -- generally regarded as those out of work longer than six months -- have had more difficulty finding jobs than other groups, studies indicate, and while unemployment rates are trending down, more Long Islanders are unemployed -- and fewer in total are employed -- than in 2007, before the Great Recession.

Puzzele said she suspects her age has worked against her landing a new job. "I've tried everything," she said, listing a string of job attempts at "food service places . . . offices with secretarial positions, supermarkets and big-box home supply stores."

Mitchell Hirsch, an advocate with the National Employment Law Project, which researches and advocates on employment-related issues and invites comments from the unemployed on its website, said the organization had received hundreds of accounts from jobless workers, both before and after the federal program ended in December.

"There's been a sharp shift in the severity of the situations that people are facing now, as opposed to before the benefits being cut off," he said. Before, people told of "desperately searching for work and scraping by trying to make ends meet. Since the benefits ended, those stories are 'We're no longer struggling to make ends meet -- we're struggling to survive.' "


Calls came quickly

Catholic Charities intake workers on Long Island say they started getting calls for help soon after extended benefits were cut. Lori Scharff, a central intake and referral specialist for the agency, said she received the first one in mid-January: "I remember it specifically because it was somebody who was looking for food. He said, 'That is my immediate need, but if this goes on much longer I won't be able to pay for anything.' "

For Jimena, the Suffolk woman, the $375 a week in unemployment benefits at least paid the rent on the apartment she shares with her daughter, 19. Now, without the benefit and her own resources, Jimena said she puts as much as she can on credit cards, gets occasional help from friends and the local church, and $189 a month in food stamps that don't go very far.

"I never realized how hard it was to find a job until I was in that situation," she said, scoffing at those who suggest unemployment benefits make it easy for people to avoid having to get a job. "They don't know what they're talking about." She is hoping for a second interview for a sales job.

Puzzele, who said she loved the restaurant job she held for more than a decade, agrees. "When I hear on the news, it makes me upset to the extent that people in Congress say that people are lazy," she said. "But when I go to unemployment [office] most of the people there are older."

Feelings of anger and abandonment can haunt those who find themselves in distress after a lifetime of steady work and independence, people like Ann, 51, a Suffolk woman who asked that her full name be withheld to protect her privacy and job prospects after eight months of unemployment.

As a voter who had leaned Republican, she said she was "shocked" by the lack of support for extended benefits among the GOP in Congress.

People who had relied on unemployment insurance, she said, "are the people who are workers, the backbone of our society, and you are turning your back."

She said she is waiting to hear back about a part-time job, which she'll take if it is offered. Meanwhile, she's been getting help from her four grown children since losing her benefits in early January.

"I wake up in the night and for a second I think, 'Oh my God, what am I going to do?' Then I pray, because I know I'm going to be OK. I have a deep faith in God and I know these tough times are when you grow, so it's OK. That's what keeps me going."

While the figures show job growth on Long Island, the largest growth has come in fields like retail, hospitality and home health care that pay little, especially compared to the jobs that many of these workers lost.

Debbie Jansen, 56, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Great Neck, lost her job as a legal secretary in January 2012 and has been able to find only temporary jobs since. In between, she's depended on unemployment insurance and savings to pay her bills.

Still, she would be reluctant to take a low-wage job. "I'm not 20 or 30; I'm an established person who has an apartment and an electric bill, a phone bill, a cable bill, an insurance bill," she said. "You know, bills."

She is actively seeking work but with little response until recently. "I hadn't so much as a nibble to a phone call I made, a resume I submitted, anything, up until last week," she said. "It's scary, it's frightening."

If federal extended benefits are resumed only through the end of May, unemployed Long Islanders still face the prospect of having no income if their state benefits have lapsed.

Jansen's state benefits run out in August, she said. "That's right around the corner."

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