Unemployment benefits: A welcome bridge over troubled waters

By Alan Moore of Portland, Oregon. Alan describes himself as "an unemployed union organizer who spends his days applying for jobs, doing home remodeling and wondering if the right wing really does want to return to the middle ages."

On January 1, I joined over 220,000 (pdf) other Oregonians in the ranks of the unemployed. Despite sharing the anxiety about the future felt by all out of work Oregonians, my first few weeks after leaving my job were marked by bittersweet surprise as I discovered the public programs that help the unemployed. These programs are much improved from my last period of joblessness after my discharge from the Army in 1990. Despite the recent rhetoric by some politicians, the real effect of these programs is preventing the high unemployment rate from causing a mass wave of hunger, homelessness, bankruptcies and other tragedies that would surely otherwise face many more out of work Oregonians and their families.

Unfortunately, some of these programs are not well known and most are not well understood. That situation was highlighted earlier this month when Oregon’s two Senators found themselves battling to extend unemployment benefits for those that have been unemployed over 6 months (some 6.1 million nationwide). While the response of Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) to Senator Jeff Merkley’s pleas on behalf of extending benefits for Oregon’s unemployed isn’t printable here, his colleague Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) was able to express the same sentiment without reliance on “salty” language – “continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work”. I think my experience is normal among Oregon’s 227,000 unemployed; I look for work daily. Before sitting down to write this piece, I applied for 3 jobs. Perhaps I should have simply reflected on how wonderful it is to have my income cut by 60% and had a beer instead?

So what are these wonderful programs that either shelter unemployed Oregonians and their families from economic tragedies or are disincentives to looking for work?

First and foremost are the state unemployment benefits that last up to 26 weeks and pay an average of $300/week (pdf) (the actual amount is based on each person’s prior earnings). The amount each Oregonian receives is supplemented by $25/week thanks to the much misunderstood federal stimulus package. Given unemployment rates remain so high, Congress and the Oregon Legislature have repeatedly extended the time that one can remain on unemployment and the U.S. Senate is currently considering extending these and other benefits through the rest of the year (in part to avoid more of the obstructionism that Oregon’s two Senators battled earlier this month).

As my former job had provided health care for my 3 stepchildren and my wife, maintaining my family’s health insurance was my number one concern when I lost my job. Thanks to action by both the Oregon legislature and federal Congress, I’ll be able to keep our health insurance at only 35% of the premium for up to fifteen months. Knowing we won’t lose our health insurance and join the 637,000 uninsured Oregonians (pdf) is a tremendous relief and will allow us to seek any needed medical care during my unemployment without incurring unaffordable health expenses or worse, without forgoing the care completely like many have to do.

Another pleasant surprise addressed one of my other high anxiety “problems”. Next year I’ll have 2 stepchildren in college and perhaps no job. Thanks to changes in the Higher Education Act in 1998, the university in Ohio my stepdaughter will attend is basing our financial aid on my projected 2010 income which is a fraction of what I earned in 2009. If I am still unemployed in July, the University of Oregon will utilize this flexibility as well to determine my oldest stepchild’s financial aid. Without this change, I would be writing about the tragedy of a future doctor and a future teacher having to give up their studies due to my joblessness.

There are many other programs that I haven’t personally taken advantage of yet. Job training, food stamps, mortgage assistance, job search assistance. The list could go on.

The smartly designed programs to help the unemployed are preventing my family becoming one of the unnoticed tragedies of this recession. These programs also help the entire state by keeping families participating in the Oregon economy. But that’s another story. For now I’m back to looking for work, because as good as these programs are, its better for my family that I find a job. That’s something that all Oregon’s unemployed understand and what some politicians in Washington seem like they never will understand.

  • Chris Hammond (unverified)

    “I think my experience is normal among Oregon’s 227,000 unemployed.”

    I think you’re probably right – My brother-in-law was just laid off and will require unemployment assistance to help keep his small family afloat (albeit barely).

    However, despite the undeniable need for continued unemployment benefits in Oregon, I’m troubled by an able-bodied young creative class that seems to embrace chronic joblessness for government-provided support. Coupled with an effort to prevent tragedies during this recession, I think we would benefit from more ethos of social responsibility and honor in work (notice I say work, not passion). I admit ‘young creative class’ is a gross generalization, but I know personally many individuals who it represents.

  • Matt Kinshella (unverified)

    Alan, I'm interested to know how you got all your information about unemployment programs and some of the other resources you speak of?

    I know many unemployed people are unsure of the what AND the how of finding help. Folks out there could probably benefit from learning about your process.

    -Matt Kinshella, 211info

  • Kary Aloveah (unverified)

    Hi Alan,

    Thanks for the great article. We are in a similar situation; however, since the company my husband worked for went bankrupt, there is no COBRA nor any assistance paying for health insurance - we're on our own.

    I really feel for everyone going through similar situations, and I'm thankful that we've been able to hold on so far. I don't know what we would have done without the extension of unemployment benefits.

    My husband is well-educated, has been published several times, and was the executive editor for a local publishing company. Our family, as well as several others, are paying for the mismanagement and questionable ethics of his former employer. We are left trying to figure out how a man in his late forties recreates himself, and re-launches some kind of career.

    Best of luck to you,

    Kary A.

  • cathy (unverified)

    I work in a WorkSource Center in Gresham. My employer is the local Community College (Mt Hood). A WorkSource center is a place more commonly known as the Employment Dept. Several years ago our program and OED (Oregon employment dept) integrated and started offering many more services. We can guide people through their application for unemployment, Offer job search workshops and 1x1 assistance, Job Training assistance. We offer all the standard job search workshops plus help applying for federal funds for training, and additional workshops for career exploration, surviving job loss and social networking. We also offer many of the same workshops in Spanish and Russian. We have information on many other resources for emergency and other assistance. We are very busy these days, but would be most happy if you came to visit us. (or the center nearer you.)

  • Red Cloud (unverified)

    Leave it to Republicans the demean unemployment insurance.

    UI was created during the Great Depression. The purpose of the program was and remains to sustain communities adversely affected by job losses. What Republicans and many employers fail to understand is that job losses ripple through communities with job losses in one sector causing losses in other sectors.

    UI benefits are spent in the communities where the worker had a job. Those dollars are spent locally. The best way to target where stimulus dollars should be spent is to follow the UI dollars.

    A community's loss of jobs is offset by UI benefits. What Bunning and the R's do is to stiff communities most hurt by this recession.

    When I worked in the program, R's down the coast would complain about UI benefits and UI taxes - until we showed them that they were receiving far, far more in benefits back to the counties than employers were paying in taxes.

    The beauty of the Oregon system is that it is counter-cyclical. When recession hits, tax rates are at their lowest. Only after the recession is over and employment is recovering do UI taxes raise to replenish the trust fund. Oregon is one of the few states that has not had to borrow because of this system.

    Yes, there are those who rip off the system, but for R's to condemn the program requires them to miss the log in their eyes.

    The UI program in Oregon pays a healthy benefit. What is is place came about as a result of cooperation between the AFL-CIO and AOI. We have good benefits and stiff penalties for those who quit or are fired for misconduct. We also have, as a result of that cooperation, a model taxing structure.

  • Alan Moore (unverified)

    Chris – You may be correct re: the young creative class. There actually is a program through unemployment insurance to help people like that start their own business called Self Employment Assistance (http://www.oregon.gov/EMPLOY/ES/SEEKER/self_employment_assistance.shtml). A bigger help would be universal healthcare, as that the lack of health insurance is the biggest barrier to becoming an entrepreneur in our society, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish. Matt – As I have a graduate degree in Policy Analysis I wish I could truthfully say that I did a very sophisticated analysis. However what I really did was apply for unemployment and figured out what is available step by step. The best single source I’ve found is from the Oregon AFL-CIO: http://oraflcio.org/workerresources/unemployment. The governmental resources are mostly fragmented by program area and a lot is written in policy-wonkease (try this page out if you want to bend your brain and still wonder what your unemployment benefit would be: http://www.oregon.gov/EMPLOY/UI/extensions_overview_12-16-08.shtml) Kary – The situation of your husband perfectly illustrates one of the major downsides of the manner in which the U.S. provides for social insurance – it’s a crazy quilt full of exceptions and overlapping programs. For example, there are 2 separate programs that provide for the health insurance continuation for the unemployed: federal COBRA subsidy for those who worked for a company with 20 or more employees or state continuation for those who worked for a company with less than 20 employees and live in a state that has a state continuation law (Oregon does). Those who don’t qualify for the COBRA subsidy and live in a state without a state continuation law are just out of luck. Same applies for those who worked for now bankrupt companies. Cathy – Yes, the state and the community colleges are doing great work together. Your website is helpful (www.worksourceoregon.org) and I’m sure the programs are very good as well. I have to say the mandatory Initial Assessment & Orientation session I went to was so bad that it could have been a parody skit of a bad public program – thankfully Tina Fey wasn’t in the group or we would have seen it adapted for 30 Rock. I still don’t know why I was required to come do that, I’ve assumed it was some federal compliance measure. Red Cloud – I couldn’t agree more. Keeping these social insurance programs in good shape takes a lot of perseverance but it is worth it. If I had written the same essay from the perspective of someone in say, Alabama, it would have been a much drearier story. Oregon’s system isn’t perfect but stacks up well compared to many other states (http://www.propublica.org/feature/unemployment-insurance-is-not-working-603). The federal government is trying to induce states to modernize their unemployment systems. Oregon already has and qualified for $85 million in increased federal funding for having done so. Many states either haven’t acted or have refused to do so. Life really is harder for the unemployed in places like Alabama due to conscious choices made by their politicians. The politics and policy of this are covered well by the National Employment Law Center (http://www.nelp.org/).

  • Mike Grigsby (unverified)

    Is there any agency that helps with rental assistance?

  • Jeff Merrick (unverified)

    Unemployment compensation is important. People are having trouble getting a prompt hearing when a bad employer denies compensation. I'm helping a woman who has been out of work since November. The Employment Division told her her hearing is still probably about 8 weeks away.

    The system is overburdened at this time. Deserving people are losing everything because of the delay in correcting initial denials.

    Jeff Merrick, Oregon Trial Attorney http://www.jeffmerrick.com

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