End of emergency unemployment hits hard

01/02/2014 10:34 PM

01/03/2014 6:36 AM

Gregory Collins, 37, a Rock Hill machinist for 15 years until the middle of last year, received a notice last week in the mail. It was not a Christmas card.

“It said my unemployment benefits were done,” said Collins on Thursday, as he tried for an extension after he was laid off. “I know I am not the only one, either. I don’t know what I am going to do. All those years I worked and never missed and then it was all gone. And now the benefits are gone, too. I was hoping the new year would bring a new opportunity, but right now it has started worse than last year.”

About 1.3 million Americans saw their benefits under the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program end last week when Congress declined to renew the program that started five years ago during the recession. The program cost $25 billion each year and provided benefits to the unemployed after state unemployment benefits ran out. The program ended as all those in Congress were away from Capitol Hill.

The economy has rebounded some, certainly, and unemployment numbers locally and in the state are down. But still, in South Carolina 12,548 people lost the federal emergency benefits, according to the S.C. Department of Unemployment and Workforce. In York County, 430 people will not get that emergency check anymore.

In Chester County, where unemployment even in a somewhat resurgent economy hovers at close to 10 percent, 59 people lost emergency benefits. Lancaster County now has 221 people who lost the check.

That doesn’t mean those are the only unemployed people. In South Carolina, more than 17,000 people getting unemployment benefits from the state are not affected by federal cuts. Yet state benefits don’t last forever, either.

And benefits claims don’t show the number of unemployed who are on the edge of despair. More than 152,000 people statewide are still unemployed, according to figures from November 2013, the last month analyzed by the employment office. In York County, 7,994 people are classified as unemployed. In Chester County, it was 1,365. In Lancaster County, 2,587.

Even trying to get benefits changed in 2013 in South Carolina. In many places, people can no longer do the paperwork at the employment office – which so many people still call the “unemployment office.” Claims are done now by phone and computer. And to make it worse, Chester County was one of the counties in 2013 where services were cut to the unemployed at the physical office.

Thursday, the first day employment offices re-opened for 2014, was another chance to look for work. Another Rock Hill family – Ronnie Brady, his wife, Rene, and two grandchildren – left wondering where benefits might come from now after the expiration of the federal emergency program. Brady worked last as a DJ at a nightclub, worked other jobs, from a fence company to manual labor, but hasn’t been able to find anything permanent. He spent the morning hours on Thursday at the SC Works office in downtown Rock Hill searching for a job.

“My landlord told us New Year’s Eve we have to be out by Monday,” Brady said. “I will have nowhere for these two little kids to stay.”

Brady’s wife, Rene, said it doesn’t seem like people who make the decision to stop the benefits know what happens when they do.

“What happens is people are left not knowing if their grandbabies will have a place to live or anything to eat,” Rene Brady said. “We would shovel horse poop out of stables to make a few dollars, it is so desperate.”

Charities and nonprofits that help the needy and poor expect the number of people who will need emergency help to go up as the benefits end. When food stamp benefits went down Nov. 1, several food pantries saw larger numbers afterward.

George Kelly at Project Hope in Rock Hill said it is impossible to know for sure what the effects of the cut to federal emergency benefits will be, but he said, “Our experience is any time that these programs are gone, the need out there among people goes up.”

There has been some discussion by politicians of an attempt to try to re-establish the federal emergency benefits plan.

A guy such as Chris McElroy, 53, who has no more unemployment benefits and went to the SC Works office in Rock Hill on Thursday morning hoping for a miracle, put it this way: “It’s a new year with the same problems.”

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