In the coming weeks, the Senate is expected to resume its debate about whether to extend the emergency jobless benefits that were passed in response to the steep increase in unemployment caused by the recession. But people like Frazee, who have suffered the longest in the downturn, will not be part of that conversation. They are among the 1.4 million workers who have been unemployed for at least 99 weeks, according to the Labor Department, reaching the limit for the insurance. Their numbers have grown sixfold in the past three years.
The 99ers are glaring examples of the nation’s most serious bout of long-term joblessness since the Great Depression. Nearly 46 percent of the country’s 14.6 million unemployed people have been out of work for more than six months, and forecasters project that the situation will not improve anytime soon. Currently, the Labor Department says there are nearly five unemployed people for every job opening.
Frazee, 50, has applied for work at more places than he can remember since he lost his construction job two years ago. He has tried car dealerships, Kmart, Home Depot and the funky shops on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, near Toms River. He looked into becoming a commercial crabber, working in title insurance and as a bail bondsman. But no dice.
While searching for work, he lived on $585 a week in unemployment payments. But the checks were cut off in May when he reached 99 weeks. Now Frazee, who is married and has a 5-year-old daughter, is in a financial free fall with no safety net.***
On several occasions, Senate Republicans have said they would not vote for stimulus bills that included unemployment extensions, saying any new spending must be offset by cuts elsewhere. With the extensions expired at least temporarily, more than 2 million Americans have lost their unemployment benefits, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research organization. A report by the House Ways and Means Committee estimated that 21,700 Virginians, 12,300 Marylanders and 5,200 D.C. residents lost their benefits when the extensions ended.
Congress’s inaction has been accompanied by a growing sentiment among lawmakers that long-term unemployment benefits create a disincentive for the jobless to find work.
“Workers are less likely to look for work, or accept less-than-ideal jobs, as long as they are protected from the full consequences of being unemployed,” said Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. “That is not to say that anyone is getting rich off unemployment, or that unemployed people are lazy. But it is simple human nature that people are a little less motivated as long as a check is coming in.”***
Most of the time, Frazee said, he has been confident that things would work out, if only because they always have. He started as a construction worker after his father’s endorsement helped him land a spot in the Laborers’ International Union Local 415 shortly after he graduated from Toms River South High School in 1978.
When he wasn’t working construction, he had jobs on oil rigs off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., and in the Gulf of Mexico. He also was a bounty hunter. “I’ve never been one to feel sorry for myself,” he said. “I’ve always worked.”
Until now. The longer he is out of a job, the more unemployable he feels. He suspects that potential employers are turned off by his age and by the fact that he has been out of work for so long. But he is moving near the top of the hiring list for his union. And in the meantime, he has been buying mail-order children’s quartz watches from China and selling them on consignment at local convenience stores. He clears close to $3 per watch.
“I’m a union construction worker, but I think I can be a hell of a salesman,” Frazee said. “A lot of the stores around here are owned by Indian Americans, and they like me. They’re taking my watches. Maybe India and China are going to help me out of this jam if my country won’t.”
You would think this kind of story would motivate the Democrats, but considering the Republicans have every incentive to make sure more people are miserable, I doubt motivation will help much. That’s the perverse reality. The more Americans who hurt, the more political and philosophical incentive the GOP has to block any attempts to help the economy.
And his job is not going to come back any time soon- there is so much inventory out there it will be hard to imagine a need for union construction workers any time soon. That’s just the cherry on the top of the whole sundae for the GOP. Union men now down to hawking foreign manufactured trinkets at the market- it even sounds like a Somali glibertarian paradise.