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For ‘99ers,’ a job can feel like a mirage

Experts say 99ers — people who have exhausted all 99 weeks of unemployment without finding work — are among the hardest hit in this recession.
Image: Jeremy Hawking
Jeremy Hawking, 35, of Chicago, prepares for a job interview. After nearly exhausting 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, Hawking landed a job with a design firm last week.for

They call themselves “99ers,” because they have exhausted the maximum 99 weeks of unemployment benefits.

Their savings have been depleted, along with their dreams of a comfortable financial future. In many cases, their credit is shot too after years of living on the financial edge and relying on plastic to cover the most basic expenses.

They have lost many things: homes, cars, valuables, relationships, health insurance, even the cell phones and computers that provide the lifeline to the one thing they need most — a job.

For some, it is any job — a job washing dishes, cleaning toilets or taking orders at McDonald’s. Others, even in the face of such dire financial hardship, still refuse to accept a menial job that offers far less money — and respect — than their previous positions as managers, teachers, architects or administrative assistants.

Desperate for work, some 99ers, such as Florida native Diana Johnston, have gone back to school in the hopes that they can reinvent themselves as nurses or technicians. But the cost of education deters some, including 35-year-old Jeremy Hawking, who questions the wisdom of taking on more debt when he is already struggling to make ends meet.

The 99ers lost their jobs in mid-2008 or before, meaning they were among the earliest victims of a tenacious recession that took hold in December 2007. Yet they could be among those who will have the hardest time getting a new job even now that companies have warily started hiring again.

That’s because being unemployed can build on itself as people lose the financial means to apply for jobs or go to job interviews, get worn down by the stress of being jobless and no longer have the most up-to-date skills.

As of May 1, there were around 419,000 people collecting “Tier IV” unemployment benefits — the last stage of payments before a worker exhausts all unemployment aid available under the federal unemployment extensions, according to the Department of Labor. The DOL does not have data on how many people have exhausted 99 weeks of benefits since the recession began.

The situation is especially worrisome in this recession, in which millions of jobs have been lost and few, so far, have come back. That has left employers free to be extremely picky about who they hire.

“We’re in this humongous hole, and we just hit bottom,” said Sylvia Allegretto, an economist with Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UC Berkeley. “We’re just starting to climb out of it.”

'I am scared all the time.'
Diana Johnston saw her layoff coming.

It was the spring of 2008, and business in the reverse mortgage department at First American Title in Tallahassee, Fla., had gone from a fire hose to a trickle.

“There were just days of eight hours of nothing to do,” she recalled.

Johnston, 43, said she was one of the last people in her department to be laid off, and by the time it came already had started sending out resumes. But with thousands of people in Florida and across the country losing their real estate jobs amid the massive housing bust, Johnston got little response.

Worried, she packed up her two sons, now ages 4 and 12, and moved to Orlando, where she had gone to college and where she thought she might have better luck finding a job.

She sent out hundreds of resumes, applying for anything that she thought she might have a chance at — file clerk, receptionist, legal assistant, title work.

Two years later, nothing has panned out.

Johnston was collecting unemployment until April 5, when she maxed out her 99 weeks of benefits. She said she receives some financial help from the father of her older son, and she recently began receiving food stamps. She has sold many of her possessions to make ends meet.

“I have lost everything,” she said. “If I haven’t lost it, I’ve pawned it.”

At the end of 2009, she also lost custody of her younger son to his father, and court records show that was in part because of her dire financial situation. Her son is now in Tallahassee and she has not been able to afford to go visit him.

“I’m just heartbroken,” she said.

Johnston and her older son are now renting part of a house, but she is behind on the rent.

Her financial situation has made it harder to find work: Her cell phone is broken so it only takes incoming calls, and without a computer she must rely on the library for Internet access. She has just one nice outfit for interviews.

Johnston is currently using government funding to attend school to become a medical coder and biller — a field she chose because it’s supposed to be recession-proof — but she won’t be done until the summer of 2011.

Sometimes, she said, she feels like she is going down a black hole.

“I am scared all the time,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I mean scared like I have never been before.”

At 35 — a point in life when many people are buying their first home, getting that big promotion or otherwise establishing themselves — Jeremy Hawking was looking for work. And he had been for nearly two years.

“I totally feel like my life is on hold and I just want to start it back up again,” Hawking said last month.

And then came the reprieve. On the Thursday before Memorial Day, and just before his 99 weeks of unemployment were scheduled to run out, Hawking got a job.

And it wasn’t just any job. It was, he said, the kind of job he’d always wanted, the kind of job that he thinks is so perfect it almost makes the pain of the past 22 months worth it.

“This isn’t just a job. This is a career. This is where I want to be,” he said.

Hawking was laid off from his post at a marketing communications company in July 2008, at a time when many companies were pulling back on that kind of expenditure because of the recession.

At first, he only applied for jobs he really wanted, reasoning that he’d reached a point in his career where he could afford to be very selective.

After a while, he started looking for lower-level positions, and then for positions in other cities besides his native, and beloved, Chicago. Occasionally he landed an interview, but nothing turned into a job.

Hawking treated his job search like a job itself, spending eight hours a day at his computer, networking, researching, applying. To cover the gap in his resume, he did volunteer work in his field and a bit of freelance. As the months dragged on, a part of him still couldn’t believe he hadn’t found a job.

“I’m very surprised. I’m daily surprised. A lot of my friends who are working, not in my field, are surprised, and they’re starting to question why I don’t have a job,” he said a week before landing the new job. “I’m an educated man. … There is absolutely no reason I should be unemployed. The problem is that jobs just are not out there.”

Hawking burned through his savings and maxed out his credit cards paying for health insurance before dropping coverage. He became a vegetarian and cut out extras like soda in part to save money.

He said his friends have been generous: His roommate agreed to pay all the utility bills, and other friends have loaned him small amounts of money or treated him to a night out.

Still, goals like buying his own home had to be put on hold — even buying a new pair of jeans was a stretch — and his dating life took a hit.

“Who really wants to date somebody who’s unemployed?” he asked.

Hawking said he communicated for two months with the design firm that eventually hired him before being called in last week for a final interview.

He was standing on the Chicago "L" platform, on the way home from that interview, when he got the call saying he would be offered the job.

“I actually almost started crying because it was a relief,” he said. “It was a huge relief.”

When the train arrived, he made his way to a secluded area in the back of the train “because I was smiling like a crazy person,” he said.

The official offer, which arrived later in the day by e-mail, pays more than his last job and offers much-needed benefits. It feels almost unreal to him.

“I’m still not as happy as I should be yet because I’m still in the relief period,” he said the next day.

Hawking, who started in his new position on Tuesday, admits he’s a bit nervous about re-entering office life after such a long hiatus.

“It’s going to be work in itself to be back in that environment,” he said.

But after months without work, he said he is more than anxious to be on the job again. When friends asked him if he didn’t want to take a week or so before starting the position, he was incredulous.

“I’m really, really ready to work,” he said.

In startup culture, job offers stop
After working for several Silicon Valley companies, Katherine Brodeur had learned to weather uncertainty and even the occasional job loss associated with that area’s startup culture. So when she found out in April 2008 that the company she was working for was folding, she didn’t worry.

“I just thought I’d have another job pretty quickly,” she said.

In the past, she said her next position often came through connections from her last job and occasionally without even proffering up a resume. But this time, the recession had cast a pall over everything.

“After probably about nine months or so I said, ‘Oh my God, this is really getting out of hand,’” she recalled.

Brodeur, who mainly has held administrative and human resources jobs in recent years, has typically made $50,000 to $60,000. Now, she sees those same types of jobs posted for as little as $8 an hour, minimum wage in California. She said many of the listings she sees also have turned out to be scams of some sort.

Her husband’s steady job as a documentation manager has given the couple some financial stability. But Brodeur said she occasionally breaks into a cold sweat with the fear that he, too, might lose his job. That’s something she never worried about before.

Things have gotten tighter for Brodeur, 53, since her 99 weeks of unemployment expired in February, and she said the tedium and stress of being unemployed is wearing on her.

“I feel like I’ve aged 15 years,” she said. “Before, I felt like I could run circles around any new college grad.”

At the same time, she worries that her age and experience are working against her. One of her daughters, who is living with her at the moment, recently landed a minimum wage job for an engraving company, while Brodeur has only had a few interviews.

Brodeur said she has quietly started looking for jobs in the restaurant industry. Before going into office work, she worked as a waitress while raising her three kids, and she also briefly owned a restaurant.

But her husband has said that she is too old, and has come too far, for that kind of physically demanding and often low-paying work.

“He said, ‘I will lose respect for you if you do it,’ ” she said.

Still, she thinks he would eventually come around if she decided that was the only option.

Last week, Brodeur interviewed for a job as a restaurant manager, but when she got there she found out that the job was really as a server, and it only paid $8 an hour. Despite all that, she is considering it because at least it would get her out of the house.

“I do not like being at home,” she said. “I hate it.”