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After 99 weeks, then what? Long-term unemployed are left without assistance

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 8, 2010 - They're called 99ers: Americans who have been out of work for so long they won't qualify for the proposed extension of unemployment benefits that has Washington tied up in "nots."

As it stands, the proposal makes no allowance for 99ers who have already claimed the maximum: 26 weeks of unemployment insurance from their respective states, plus the four "tiers" of benefits funded by the federal government, up to an additional 73 weeks, depending upon the unemployment rate in their state.

There are anywhere from 2 million to 5 million 99ers -- estimates vary widely -- and that number grows each month as more unemployed Americans max out of unemployment insurance. The U.S. Department of Labor doesn't track 99ers, though it does offer this statistic on long-term unemployment: In November, 15.1 million Americans were jobless, and 6.3 million -- or 41.9 percent of them -- had been out of work for more than 27 weeks. 

"Right now you have over 5 million Americans -- and that number grows every day -- who have fallen off the map and exhausted their unemployment insurance," said Gregg Rosen, an advocate for extending unemployment insurance beyond the current 99-week limit.

Rosen, 42, of Bucks County, Pa., has been unemployed since January 2008 when he lost his job as an executive with a telecommunications company. He said he has been using the remainder of his savings to survive since his unemployment benefits terminated at the end of March.

Rosen and other 99ers have taken to the internet, mounting a do-it-yourself campaign to call attention to their plight. Google "99ers" and you'll find a host of websites, with names like Unemployed Workers Action Group or Unemployed-Friends

The groups offer 99ers from across the country a means to connect with one another. There are forums for sharing experiences -- and venting -- and resources to help them contact their legislators or social agencies. Many include links to suicide prevention hotlines.

Rosen started an informational website about the need for a "fifth tier" of benefits last spring as his own were running out. He is also the co-founder of the American 99ers Union, an umbrella group for various 99er sites that works to produce a united message.

Rosen estimates that 100,000 people participate in the 99ers campaign through the various websites. Most of their activism is via emails, faxes or phone calls because, as Rosen points out, these people have no money for a march on Washington.

"Should they pay for a bus ticket or feed their families?" he said.

'We've Used Up Our Savings'

Michael White, 58, of Los Angeles who lost his job as a video editor in June 2008 said he exhausted his unemployment benefits this past June. White founded the Unemployed Workers Action Group in May to give 99ers a voice and get their message out to media outlets.

White is critical of President Barack Obama's compromise with Republicans to exchange tax cuts for extended unemployment benefits.

"Many are fooled by the statement that you are proposing a 13-month extension," White says on his website. "Many believe that this means that all of the 'long-term unemployed' are helped by this proposed legislation. But this is not the case! You and your administration and the Senate are well aware that this proposed bill has no provisions to give any further help to 5 million 99ers -- those who have exhausted up to 99 weeks of unemployment insurance but still have not been able to get a job."

White said that Obama and Democrats should have pushed for benefits to assist 99ers before the current legislative session ends, while they still have clout.

"The Republicans were foaming at the mouth to get these tax cuts for millionaires and they knew they were going to negotiate for that," White said. "If you want tax cuts, give unemployment to the 99ers."

Since exhausting his unemployment insurance, White and his wife have been relying on her minimum-wage job for their only income, but they are about "$500 in the hole" every month, he said.

"We've used up our savings and we're on the verge of being evicted if I don't find a job," he said.

White said that it is a changed job world; he applies for hundreds of jobs but rarely hears anything in response. Though he worked in television for more than 20 years, he calls it "a young man's game. They don't like hiring older people."

He is hoping to find work at a nonprofit doing the type of work he has done with the 99ers: organizing members and running a website and social media.

"I've been unemployed twice before in my life, and it's never taken me more than four to six months to get a job," he said. "If you talk to the 99ers they'll all tell you that. Nobody wants to sit around on unemployment."

White says that his website has about 500 actual members but more than 25,000 visitors. He bristles at the notion that unemployment is a disincentive that keeps people from looking for work because he said the maximum benefit -- $300 to $400 a week -- is barely enough to keep people afloat.

He predicts a rise in homelessness as more Americans max out of unemployment.

"You can't have millions of people without income and you cannot have thousands in the streets -- and that's going to happen if you don't pass something for the 99ers this session," he said.

Banding Together

Rosen says it's a question of numbers.

"You just have too many Americans out there who are not able to invest back into the economy," he said. "It's easy to say 'Go get a job.' Let's not talk emotion. Let's talk fact and figures. Look at the figures month in and month out. We're losing more jobs every month than we're gaining. Where are the jobs? Unemployment above 9 percent for 19 months now, so where are the jobs?"

Rosen said he made "six figures" throughout his career and would have considered retiring on his savings, but he lost most of that in investments with convicted financial adviser and broker Bernard Madoff.

"I am down to bare bones in respect to any savings I did have left; the majority went with Madoff," he said.

Rosen estimates he has sent 1,500 resumes during the past three years and seldom hears a response.

Until the economy begins adding jobs, Rosen believes that the nation needs to provide for its jobless. While the current legislation reinstates 99 weeks of benefits for about 2 million Americans, he warns that they, too, will eventually become 99ers if they don't find work.

"If we pass unemployment insurance to 99ers, everybody says, 'What will it do to the deficit? And what's going to happen to our children's and our grandchildren's future?' That's a good question. But in a lot of instances the future is now for a lot of Americans," Rosen said.

Rosen said the real goal is to save the U.S. economy.

"Obviously the end goal is to get all of America back to work," he said. "Nobody wants to sit home on the couch. Those who are unemployed who are still fortunate enough to be receiving an unemployment insurance check they don't want to sit home and receive a check that is only a fraction of what they used to make when they were out in the working world."

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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