For 23 years, 58-year-old Cindy Paoletti of Salina, N.Y., worked in the corporate accounting division of J.P. Morgan Chase, balancing payroll accounts in an upstate office of the Wall Street bank. In December 2007, Paoletti was let go in a wave of layoffs that eventually shuttered the entire Syracuse operations center. “My job went to India,” she sighs.
Soon after, she started collecting unemployment benefits and severance while searching for a job in earnest. “I apply for everything out there,” she says, estimating she has applied to hundreds of positions over the past 30 months. “But 95 percent of the time, the company you send your resume to does not even acknowledge that they’ve received it. The majority of the time, if you do get an interview, they tell you that you are overqualified. It seems like as soon as they find out your age, everything goes down after there. The age discrimination is horrendous. And everybody in that baby boomer age group is experiencing the same thing.”
For 99 weeks, weeks, Paoletti accepted New York state and federal unemployment benefits. This spring, they ran out. Now, she is drawing down her IRA to stay afloat, underwater on her mortgage and without health insurance.
She’s not alone. Indeed, Paoletti is one of a million 99ers, as the long-term unemployed who have exceeded the maximum number of weeks of benefits are known.
The joblessness crisis — in the average duration of unemployment, if not the absolute unemployment rate — is unprecedented in the postwar United States. Of the 15 million unemployed in America, over 7 million have been out of work for more than six months, nearly 5 million for a year and over 1 million for two years — the worst statistics since the government started keeping count in 1948. The proportion of the unemployed out of work for more than six months has doubled in the past year, to more than 46 percent. The jobseekers-to-jobs ratio, which tells how hard positions are to get, remains around 5.6 to 1.
Paoletti and other 99ers are afflicted by a constellation of problems. Many are underwater on their mortgages, meaning they cannot sell their homes and move away. Many are “structurally unemployed,” meaning that demand for their now-obsolete skills will not tick back up as the recession eases. And many have deep ties to their communities, and cannot or will not move for another job. For instance, Paoletti’s father recently passed away after a battle with Alzheimer’s; she helped care for him until his death. Her brother (also unemployed for years now) lives nearby, and her daughter — who moved home when she lost her job, and just found work decorating cakes part-time at a grocery store — lives with her.
The million 99ers like Paoletti do not just struggle with the immediate effects of joblessness — including, in many cases, the slide from the middle class into poverty. They also struggle with the lingering deleterious effects. The longer people are unemployed, the harder it is for them to regain a job. Their skills deteriorate. They tend to lose confidence, become depressed and suffer from higher rates of divorce and suicide.
Paoletti — and many experts — believe that only an expansion of emergency unemployment benefits or a similar intervention from Washington will save her and her cohort from abject poverty if employment does not rebound strongly, quickly. But Washington doesn’t seem motivated to fight for jobs — or for the 99ers. The Senate is currently considering a $100 billion jobs package that might include new money to hire workers for highway repair and to preserve local-government hiring of teachers, as well as tax breaks for employers. But none of the measures under consideration in the bill would keep the benefit checks coming in the mail for more than 99 weeks.
The senators from Paoletti’s home state — Democrats Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand — have both indicated they might be willing to extend unemployment benefits to 100-plus weeks. (This would create a fifth tier of unemployment benefits. Tier IV, created by Congress last year, brought the maximum number of weeks of benefits to 99 in states with high unemployment rates.) Schumer even wrote a letter that was published on the website of Paoletti’s local newspaper, saying, “Once I ensure that every New Yorker receives the full 99 weeks to which they are entitled, I will work with my colleagues to create a fifth tier of benefits. More than 25,000 New Yorkers have exhausted the full 99 weeks of benefits and I am committed to providing them further relief.”
But the Senate as a whole is less than willing. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has indicated that he will not vote for a fifth tier, as have others. “You can’t go on forever. I think 99 weeks is sufficient,” Baucus told Bloomberg News. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) likewise dismissed the idea. “There’s just been no discussion to go beyond [99 weeks],” he said. And the Senate leadership, without explicitly shooting down a fifth tier, has nodded in agreement.
Paoletti argues that Washington recognizes the enormity and seriousness of the problem but is turning its back on some of the nation’s neediest. The recalcitrance has led her to go activist. She and some friends are currently lobbying for the final passage of the latest extenders bill, known in online communities for the 99ers as “4213,” its original bill number in the House. It would not help people who have exhausted benefits, but would prevent the expiry of Tier IV extended benefits for hundreds of thousands of people a week. Additionally, Paoletti and others meet up on listservs and websites, fax resumes to Washington and call congressional offices.
She hopes that a hearing on Thursday might prove the turning point for the 99ers. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), the head of the subpanel on income security and family support for the House Ways and Means Committee, is holding the first hearing on policy responses for long-term unemployment. “Our first step to respond to long-term unemployment is obvious — continue the emergency federal unemployment programs to prevent millions of workers from losing their benefits,” McDermott said in a statement. “If we can afford wars, tax cuts and bank bailouts, then we can certainly afford to maintain programs for workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. An increasing number of Americans who have worked hard and played by the rules are now finding themselves with no job, no savings and no support. We must not abandon these workers and their families.”
Paoletti hopes that the hearing — where letters from her and thousands others might be read into the record — will gin up pressure for Tier V. Other solutions likely to be discussed are job retraining and emergency benefit programs. But it all might be too little, too late for 99ers falling into poverty at a rate of thousands per week.
“Out of all the people [I know] that got laid off the same time as me, I think only three have found jobs,” Paoletti says. “The rest are still all have exhausted unemployment or they’re getting close to the end of it. Someone’s got to do something.”