Hard Working: When Unemployment Benefits Run Out

August 27, 2009

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Carole and her cat Romeo

The unemployment rate in the Chicago area in July was 10.7 percent, higher than the national average. For many people, the search for work started months and months ago. As of last month, a third of job seekers in the country have been out of work for more than half a year. Chicagoan Carole Cantrell has been looking for work twice that long. Back in February, we brought you her story about piecing life together as part of our series Hard Working. Today, we check in.

If you heard Carole's story back in the winter you might remember that she's a 52-year-old woman looking for a graphic design job. She lives with her super-fluffy cat Romeo in a sparsely furnished apartment on Chicago's north side. So far, she's had no luck landing a permanent job; she does have a little freelance work.  On the day I visit, she's designing a party invitation for a non-profit in Chicago.
 
CAROLE: (on phone)...the digital, you can do laser print...

She's not getting paid for the invitation, but she's hoping it might help her get paid work later. Maybe someone with money to spend will see it and like it.
 
Her hunt for work is now more than a year old. She's spent day after day, hour after hour since last June,  reading job descriptions and sending cover letters for full time jobs and freelance work.

Today-more frustration.

CAROLE: It's early in the morning. I checked Craig's List and the Columbia website already, I didn't find anything. Some days there's nothing. It has slowed down.

And money isn't good. She has a college loan that may go into default at the end of the month. She gets regular calls from school bill collectors.

CAROLE: What I think is kind of funny is that, well, I don't have anything. He said, 'They'll garnish your wages,' and I said, 'Well I don't have any wages. I don't work for a company, I work intermittently and so I don't know.' Maybe I should be scared. It'll ruin my credit. I don't want that, but it's not the end of the world. I'll pay cash. What can I do? If I don't have it, there is nothing I can do.

The social safety net, set up to help people get through rough stretches, is showing its limits. A spokesman with the Illinois Department of Employment Security says thousands of people could exhaust their unemployment benefits in the next two or three weeks. And, by the end of the year, there could be 40,000 people no longer getting unemployment checks. The rough stretch just keeps stretching. Carole's unemployment insurance ran out in July.
 
CAROLE: That was another day that made me want to cry.

She was getting by with food stamps, but she made too much money doing a temporary job to keep them. Before food stamps ran out, she stocked her pantry with foods that don't spoil—like beans and pasta—even peanut butter.

In many ways, her situation seems more precarious than it did in February. The backstop is gone. For the most part, she's on her own in this recession.
Still, surprisingly, maybe even ironically, she seems more positive than she has in the past.

CAROLE: I think in general I have more confidence in myself and my abilities, and maybe just getting accustomed to the situation.

She says she thinks sometimes about where Romeo the cat, who sprawls out on her chest while she works on cover letters, will live if she loses her apartment. But she's getting by. When the unemployment payments stopped she says she stopped thinking of herself as unemployed.

CAROLE: I see myself as a freelancer now. It's like OK, here I am. It was always an option. I knew that going into this field and um I've always known that I'm very good at learning on the fly and that's what I've been doing. And I've been surviving that way. I'd like to take it beyond survival. That would be good.

But she sees what she has now as a smidgen of success. She and her cat have a home, a place to live.  They've made it this far. It's still incredibly stressful, sometimes she says it's just too hard to work on her art. She curls up in front of the TV instead.

And the day to day strain of being without regular work remains. Carole still doesn't know where rent money or grocery money will come from next.