End of federal unemployment benefits hits hard in Dorchester
Crystal Thompson’s frustration was palpable as she settled down at a table in the SC Works Career Center in Summerville this week.
She swore she already had filled out a particular unemployment form on a prior visit. Her 5- and 3-year-old daughters were fidgeting and chatty. And then, of course, there was the larger circumstance that brought her into 2885 West 5th North St. Wednesday afternoon: no job.
Thompson made $18 an hour as a senior account executive at Daniel Island giftware manufacturer Davis & Small until March, and the 36-year-old single mother hasn’t been able to find suitable replacement work since.
She said she would simply work two jobs if she didn’t have children, but since she has to support her girls, she figures she needs to be paid at least $14 an hour.
“There’s so many people who are unemployed that they’re all going for the same jobs,” she said.
Thompson already moved in with her mother to save money, even though “it’s not emotionally healthy for me and my children.” And if no one hires her this month, it’s about to get rougher.
Thompson is one of 29,000 South Carolinians who will lose their federal unemployment benefits at the end of the year.
After several extensions of the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program to help out-of-work Americans ride out the recession the past few years, it’s over. Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 in February, which cut off the benefits by Jan. 3, 2013.
Thompson doesn’t know what she’s going to do to get by without that $273 weekly check.
“The Department of Social Services offices is going to be seeing a lot of single females,” she predicted. “What else are you going to do?”
Dorchester County will be among the hardest hit by this development, with 1,004 people set to lose their EUC.
Charleston County has more people enrolled in the program — 1,852 — but its population is twice as large as Dorchester’s. And Berkeley County has two-thirds the number of affected beneficiaries as Dorchester with a larger population.
According to state unemployment figures from October, that 1,004 constitutes more than one-fifth of the unemployed people in Dorchester County.
Larry Hargett, chairman of the County Council, said he was “rather stunned when I saw the numbers” this week.
“I feel for those folks,” he said, noting that it will be an unwelcome ending to the holiday season. “It couldn’t have come at a worse time.”
As the EUC is a federal program and the people affected already have exhausted their state benefits, Hargett said the county isn’t in a position to ease the pain.
“I’m not sure there’s a lot we can do,” he said.
Getting new skills
Back at the career center, Seth Duncan, the site manager, said he has “seen this target coming,” and has been trying to plan with partner agencies and organizations.
As many as 4,500 people per month walk through the center’s doors, Duncan said, and some 85 percent of them come for unemployment insurance.
There were notices in clear plastic stands on tables around the center Wednesday, and Duncan said his staff has let the affected people know when they come in for their regular “eligibility reviews.”
“These tiers do end at the end of the year,” Duncan said he has counseled people about the series of extensions, “so let’s talk about what we can do to find your next great jobs.”
But the expiration of the program was news to Joshua Watson, a 23-year-old Summerville resident, who like Thompson visited the center Wednesday afternoon to file for an extension.
After three years making latex gloves at the Honeywell factory in North Charleston, Watson was fired a year ago. By March he had started working at Morelli Heating & Air Conditioning, but Watson said there was no work for him by the end of July, and he hasn’t had steady work since.
Asked what he would like to do next, Watson said, “Anything really.” Asked what he planned to do next month after he receives his last $326 check from the government, he couldn’t even muster a verbal answer.
Duncan said the answer for many of the long-term unemployed is acquiring new skills to compete in today’s labor market.
‘Ready and waiting’
The main federal training program, Duncan said, is funded through the Workforce Investment Act, and he encourages everyone to apply as soon as they sign up for unemployment benefits.
It’s especially crucial from now on, he said, because the state is the only unemployment insurance available now, and last year, the S.C. Legislature cut the maximum benefit period from 26 to 20 weeks.
“That’s why we’re trying to engage them from the moment they file for unemployment insurance.”
Duncan said the Department of Social Services and the S.C. Vocational Rehabilitation Department also do job training. And in addition to his SC Works center, there are centers in Charleston and Berkeley counties.
Asked what early January might look like at his center, Duncan remained optimistic.
“Ideally what I hope to see is those who are impacted in this office, looking for resources,” he said. “We’ll be ready and waiting for them.”
Thompson might be one of them. But despite her situation, she too sees a light at the end of the tunnel.
“This too shall pass,” Thompson said. “It’s just taking an awful long time.”