Mary Lou Roberts choked up last Thursday when she recalled being among 14 workers laid off from Lorain County Children’s Services in February.
“It was ugly,” said Roberts, of Elyria. “Everybody went around crying and hugging. We couldn’t believe it. We were all in shock.”
Roberts is one of about 1.3 million Americans — including 52,000 Ohioans, 1,600 in Lorain County — whose unemployment insurance expires Saturday due to Congress not renewing benefits.
Roberts, a 58-year-old mother of three grown sons who lives alone, receives $357 in weekly benefits. She said the last two years have been a rollercoaster.
A file clerk and receptionist at Children’s Services that was hired in 2006, she was first laid off in June 2011. Roberts was recalled in October of that year and thought her job was safe, but more budget cuts occurred in February. “I got called back and things were great and (then) it wasn’t,” she said.
Roberts, who earned $17.80 per hour in her job, found a temporary job in April with United Initiators, an international chemical company with an office in Elyria. The job paid $15 per hour, but only lasted through July. Roberts then resumed receiving unemployment benefits.
Roberts said her job search has been frustrating. Online employment website applications frequently lead to calls from for-profit colleges trying to get her to enroll, while calls from employers are infrequent.
The odds of Roberts finding work are against her. Conditions have improved since the official end of the recession in June 2009 when there were 6.2 unemployed people for every job. However, the job market remains tight. In October, there were nearly three unemployed Americans for every job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While national unemployment dropped from 7.9 percent in October 2012 to 7.3 percent in October, Ohio’s jobless rate increased from 6.9 percent to 7.5 percent in that period, according to the bureau.
Finding work is harder for unemployed people older than 50, like Roberts. Workers between 50 and 61 were a fifth less likely to find work between 2008 and 2011 than those aged between 25 and 34, according to the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
The 4.1 million people unemployed for six months or more also fare poorly. A Northeastern University study found workers unemployed for six months or more received a callback rate from potential employers of about 2 percent, compared to about 16 percent for short-term unemployed people.
Given the job picture, proponents of extending benefits more than 26 weeks — first enacted in 2008 — say it’s the wrong time to pull the plug. While extending benefits for a year would add $25 billion to the deficit, they argue the cost is more than offset by the effect of not exending the benefits will have on the economy.
Because they are usually spent rather than saved, unemployment benefits have traditionally been seen as an “automatic stabilizer” on the economy. The U.S. Department of Labor found that every dollar in benefits spent had a $2 “multiplier” effect on the economy.
Benefits during the recession reduced the decrease of gross domestic product — the total of all goods and services produced — by 18.3 percent, according to the department. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates extending benefits would increase GDP by 0.2 percent by the fourth quarter of 2014 and create at least 200,000 jobs.
The Senate plans to vote on an extension in January, according to Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, is on board.
“We must do everything we can to support those who are struggling following the worst crisis since the Great Depression,” Brown said in a Dec. 9 news release. “These are hardworking Americans — many with children — who have fallen on tough times.”
However, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati, said he would only support an extension if it were paid for with cuts to other programs to avoid increasing, “our nation’s burdensome debt.”
Lorain County’s House Republicans, U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeville, and U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, contend cutting off benefits will help jobless people. They say extensions beyond six months hinder an employer’s ability to find qualified workers because employers have to pay more — maximum weekly benefits in Ohio are $413 — and pay more in taxes to extend benefits.
Gibbs — who said he’d consider voting for an extension if there were offsetting cuts — said long-term benefits may foster dependency. Gibbs said some employers have told him workers were reluctant to take jobs until their benefits elapsed.
“I’ve had quite a few employers tell me that, so that’s concerning,” Gibbs said. “I’m not against helping people out to get back on their feet, but (the national) unemployment, the rates, have been coming down.”
Roberts said the idea that benefits make the unemployed want to work less is not true. Roberts said she regularly applies for jobs online and received two interviews for office work.
One was in Medina and the other in Lorain. Both jobs paid substantially less than her county job, but Roberts said she would’ve taken them if offered full-time work.
Roberts said the benefits she receives aren’t enough to live on and have forced her to use food pantries. Roberts said she may have to dip into the several thousand dollars she’s saved for retirement and apply for food stamps if benefits aren’t renewed soon.
If benefits aren’t extended next year and Roberts isn’t able to find work, she said she may have to take up the offer of one of her sons to move to Cincinnati and live with him and his family. Roberts said she’d prefer not to because she values her independence and doesn’t want to impose.
Meanwhile, Roberts said she continues to improve her computer skills and look for jobs.
“I want to work,” she said. “I want my job back at Children’s Services and then this would all be over.”