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As unemployment benefits ends, the jobless are left with no options

Joyce Johnson, left, watches television with her son Kevin Johnson while his brother Greg Johnson steps outside for an afternoon smoke. Kevin Johnson, 50, worked for a mail house service for nearly 10 years and was laid off about two years ago.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Joyce Johnson, left, watches television with her son Kevin Johnson while his brother Greg Johnson steps outside for an afternoon smoke. Kevin Johnson, 50, worked for a mail house service for nearly 10 years and was laid off about two years ago.

Two months ago, nearly two years after he was laid off, Kevin Johnson exhausted his unemployment benefits.

No longer able to afford his rent in Pinellas Park, he moved in with his mother in St. Petersburg, hoping he doesn't get kicked out. "She's in a 55-plus park," explained Johnson, 50. "I'm here probably till August or September, and then they're going to start getting a little antsy about me staying."

What's the impact on your life if, like Johnson, you're cut off from receiving unemployment benefits while still out of work? More Floridians are finding out at a quicker pace than ever before, tens of thousands every week.

Since Congress let its program for extended unemployment benefits phase out starting in early May, nearly 120,000 Floridians have lost benefits because they no longer can enter one of four tiers of federal aid. Nationally, that number is at 1.3 million and growing.

Congress will be out of session next week for its Independence Day vacation. By the time it returns, the number of laid-off workers who will have dropped off the unemployment rolls waiting for another extension will be over 1.7 million.

The toll could reach 3.3 million by the end of this month, including 230,000 people in Florida alone, if lawmakers don't act, according to calculations by the Labor Department and the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group.

"Congress has failed the unemployed again, and in the process has shown an inexcusable disdain for the real suffering of millions of families relying on the jobless safety net, and indifference to the real harm this inaction will cause the economy," said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project.

"For the Senate to go on recess — again — without responding to the benefit cutoff crisis is irresponsible and immoral."

Economists have said they may revise growth forecasts for the third quarter if the benefits are not extended. "People whose benefits are going to run out will simply not have the spending power necessary to help drive growth," said Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak.

States typically provide six months of unemployment help. During the recession, Congress added nearly a year and a half of extra benefits. Democrats want those terms extended through November, at a cost of $34 billion. But Republicans have objected to the toll it would take on the country's growing deficit.

There's also lingering debate about the wisdom of long-term unemployment benefits at all.

On the one hand, economists like Greenhaus say money spent on unemployment benefits is funneled back into the economy. On the other hand, some studies indicate that the long-term aid acts as a disincentive to finding another job.

That assumes there are jobs to be found.

After signs of recovery earlier this year, several economic barometers have turned negative this summer.

The housing market appears to be slumping again after tax incentives were phased out. The number of people filing their initial unemployment claim rose last week. And Friday's employment report fell short of expectations, with job growth in the private sector slowing.

Florida, with an unemployment rate of 11.7 percent and about 1.1 million counted as jobless, will release its June numbers in two weeks. In terms of the number of long-time unemployed losing benefits every week, Florida trails only California and New York.

Kevin Johnson, the St. Petersburg resident who ran out of benefits in early May, wasn't optimistic about the job picture brightening. Since he was laid off from a direct mail job in 2008, Johnson has applied everywhere he can think of. "McDonald's. Gas stations. Anything that pays anything," he said. "I applied for a busboy job and they wanted two years of experience doing a busboy."

So many jobs, he said, require him to have a car. But he's in a Catch-22: the timing belt in his car broke a year ago, and without a job, he hasn't had the money to replace it.

"It's just hard. It's not like it used to be. … No one is taking applications when you walk in the door," he said. "If you don't have a computer, you better just give it up."

As unemployment benefits ends, the jobless are left with no options 07/02/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 2, 2010 11:07pm]

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