Jobs Report: Long-Term Unemployed Tell Congress They're Hurting

12/02/2011 03:03 pm ET | Updated Dec 02, 2011

WASHINGTON -- It's been two long years since Wayne Person lost his sales job, and the 59-year-old from Mount Laurel, N.J., still hasn't managed to find new work. After a seemingly endless string of rejections, he's come to blame his long bout with unemployment on two primary factors: His age and unemployment itself.

"It became almost impossible for me to get a job interview, let a lone a job," Person says. Of the interviews he has had, "They concluded I was unqualified because I was not tech savvy, which is ridiculous, or because I was looking to retire soon, which is equally ridiculous." He has a suspicion that many employers won't consider him simply because he's already out of work -- a hunch not without merit.

Person, who's draining his 401(k) in an effort to stay afloat, is one of many out-of-work Americans who are urging Congress to pass reauthorization for unemployment insurance benefits -- a safety net that Person himself exhausted long ago, and that nearly two million unemployed stand to lose come January if the benefits aren't extended, according to the worker advocacy group National Employment Law Project.

To highlight the plight of the jobless, an alliance of 23 progressive groups called USAction released a report Friday telling the stories of nearly 90 people who are out of work, including Person. On a call with reporters, members of the group argued that the numbers released Friday from the Bureau of Labor Statistics underscore the need for congressional action on jobs and unemployment insurance.

The jobless rate actually dropped last month -- from 9.0 percent to 8.6, marking the lowest rate since March 2009 -- but that good bit of news was due partly to a shrinking labor pool, as many discouraged Americans stop looking for work.

"I think there is a tendency to focus on what the unemployment rate is, as opposed to the devil in the details," said Christine Owens, executive director of National Employment Law Project, who was on the call. "Although it's certainly good news that the unemployment rate declined, a chunk of that decline is because several hundred thousand people dropped out of the labor force. We still have almost six million people who've been unemployed six months or longer."

Debating whether or not to reauthorize unemployment benefits is fast becoming a holiday-season ritual in Washington, with lawmakers now facing the same question they did last December. Democrats have stumped loudly for the extension, holding a press conference Wednesday with hundreds of unemployed workers to pressure their colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Republicans in both chambers, meanwhile, have shown quiet signs of support for the reauthorization.

"There's no reason not to renew this program," Owens said. "It would be a huge body blow to the economy. These benefits do not prolong unemployment; they keep the unemployed engaged in the job search. Maintaining this program has that effect."

William McNary, director of USAction, said the group assembled their report, entitled "Hardly Working: Stories from Un- and Under-Employed Americans," in order to show some of the people behind the jobless numbers.

One of those people is Molly Wassermann, who recently moved to New York City from Toledo, Ohio, in search of better job prospects. She's been without work since 2008.

"What exactly is a person supposed to do who isn't being hired?" Wassermann asked on the call. "Are we supposed to just die? ... The attitude toward us is everything but Christian. They say we're lazy. ... The right is demonizing us."

"The vast majority of us just want to work," she said.

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