Stanislaus reaction mixed over end of federal jobless benefits

gstapley@modbee.comDecember 31, 2013 

Turlock’s Larry Velasquez uses his laptop and the Career Builder website to search for work Monday afternoon from his apartment. Velasquez, who has been out of work since April, is one of 1.3 million Americans whose long-term unemployment benefits have come to an end because Congress has not extended them.

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  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textGarth Stapley
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: Regional water, growth, land-use and transportation; civil law, real estate fraud and special projects
    Bio: In his 19 years with The Bee, Garth Stapley has focused on city and county government
    E-mail: gstapley@modbee.com

Larry Velasquez worked more than two decades in jobs ranging from hospital administration to furniture sales. With each paycheck, some payroll tax money went to the government for unemployment.

Now he’s out of work and facing the end of unemployment checks because a dispute in Congress is blocking benefits for the long-term jobless.

“That’s like paying insurance on my car and they decide they don’t want to pay damages” after an accident, Velasquez said. “Not fair. I’d take a job over (unemployment) benefits any day.”

The 47-year-old Turlock man is among 3,749 jobless people in Stanislaus County losing federal payouts. In California, 213,793 people have been cut off, and across the United States, 1.3 million, with millions more who may be affected in coming months.

Republicans in the House of Representatives have balked at the program’s $26 billion annual cost and suggest that ending payouts will prompt the unemployed to get serious about seeking work.

That sentiment is alive among many readers of The Modesto Bee’s Facebook page.

“Does that mean people are going to try to find a job now instead of sitting on their butts?” said Salvador Puga in a post. “Wow. OK, cool.”

Others, such as Erica Gomes and Brook Kirkland-Osterli, said they’ve seen multiple signs in businesses seeking applicants.

“Time to grow up and be responsible, people,” Veronica Villanueva wrote. “Stop blaming other people for where you are in life.”

Barrett Anzar said in a post, “Unemployment isn’t meant to last forever. They’ve milked the system long enough.”

Several others see things much differently.

“I am not lazy,” said Zee Zuniga, saying she worked more than 18 years without calling in sick and choosing to take no vacation and only two weeks of maternity leave. Losing benefits could cost her family a home “that we worked so hard for. It will mess everything up,” she said.

Rosalee Smith Redden said she was devastated to lose a job after a lifetime of hard work. “Some people on unemployment are faithfully looking for jobs,” she said. “Not everyone is lazy or looking for a handout. Unemployment is not welfare.”

“Good lord, this ain’t going to be pretty at all,” said Steve Carson, predicting hard times for his family.

Wendy Watson, whose husband is losing benefits, said, “We probably (will) be homeless unless a job comes up real soon.”

House Democrats, noting the average monthly payout of $1,166, figure that $4.4 million will not circulate throughout Stanislaus County in January because of the cutoff. At 12.1 percent, the unemployment rate here remains much higher than California (8.3 percent) and the nation (6.6 percent), according to the state Employment Development Department.

Ending long-term jobless benefits could skew the unemployment picture, experts say, because some people will become frustrated, stop looking for work and no longer be counted as unemployed. That happened in North Carolina, which began cutting extended benefits in July and whose jobless rate dropped from 8.8 percent in June to 7.4 percent in November.

More than half of Americans have collected unemployment or are married to someone who has. Using employer payroll taxes, the federal government and states combine to provide 26 weeks of benefits, and sometimes offer extended benefits from the federal government’s general fund during hard times. That’s what happened as the economy tanked in 2008; in California, the jobless could get up to 63 weeks of benefits until the recent stalemate.

Now, people across the country who have received more than 26 weeks of payouts are out of luck unless Congress approves a program expansion upon returning from winter recess, and millions more will lose benefits when they reach the 26-week limit. About 4.9 million people could be hurt by the end of 2014, the White House says.

“Once forced, people will survive on their own,” Kristi Perrone said in a Bee Facebook posting.

Sandrah Suzette Diel urged people to “get your hustle on, find a job, keep looking.”

Velasquez said he has applied for several jobs each day – with no luck – since being laid off when International Paper closed its Modesto plant in the spring. He previously worked for hospitals in Arizona and Merced, sold furniture, entered computer data at Modesto City Hall and volunteered at county offices.

“I hear all the time that I’m overqualified,” Velasquez said, “but I’ll take anything.”

A letter from the government said Tuesday’s $515 semimonthly payment would be his last. Velasquez says he’s lucky his fiancée has a job.

“I count my blessings,” he said. “We have income in our home, I’ve got a roof over my head, something to eat, a vehicle if I get a job and a computer to apply. A lot of people don’t have that.”

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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