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Falling Jobless Rate Masks Long-Term Unemployment Disaster

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Photo courtesy Mike Schillim.
Photo courtesy Mike Schillim.

WASHINGTON -- As the national unemployment rate goes down, Washington seems like it's losing interest in helping the long-term unemployed -- which is too bad, because long-term unemployment is as miserable as ever.

Mike Schillim of Warren, Mich., said he made $65,000 last year as a materials manager for an automotive company. He was let go last December and he's been on unemployment since then. His benefits are about to run out.

"We're not going to have Christmas," he said.

Schillim, 59, contacted HuffPost in response to a story soliciting emails from unemployed Americans. He said he wants people to bear witness to what's happening.

"I don't want people to think we're not looking for jobs," he said in a phone interview, rattling off the names of websites like Monster.com and CareerBuilder as he described the process of flinging resumes into an online void and never getting a response.

More than 4 million Americans had been jobless for six months or longer in November, a slight increase from the previous month, the Labor Department announced Friday. Their ranks have dwindled from a peak of 6.7 million in 2010, but the figure remains historically unprecedented. No recession since the 1950s has seen such a large proportion of the unemployed out of work for so long. Several studies have suggested a person being out of work for several months turns off employers.

In the past week, Schillim said, he's applied for jobs like the one he lost -- he spent 35 years managing materials for automotive companies -- and also for some outside his expertise, such a clerk position a Dollar General store in Grand Rapids.

The job would probably pay a little less than unemployment benefits, he said. "But if I don't get something soon, I won't have anything. The longer I'm unemployed, everything I read [says] people aren't going to hire me. What do I do? Do I become homeless?"

More than a million Americans currently receiving federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation like Schillim will lose their benefits when the program expires on Dec. 28. There is some talk on Capitol Hill about reauthorizing the insurance, which goes to people who've been unemployed six months or longer once they've exhausted their state benefits, but not a lot of optimism. In states with the highest unemployment rates, the combined duration of state and federal benefits is 73 weeks; the maximum will revert to 26 weeks if Congress does nothing.

"Outside of unemployment insurance, I can't think of a single policy the federal government's really enacted to help these people," Mike Evangelist, an analyst for the National Employment Law Project, said in an interview. The worker advocacy group issued a report this week detailing the typical budget of an unemployed household. It noted that benefits kept more than a million workers out of poverty last year.

Schillim gets about $379 per week, but soon that money will disappear. Even if Congress makes a move, Michigan is one of the stingier states when it comes to unemployment insurance, providing 20 weeks of standard state benefits instead of the usual 26.

He's had a few interviews in the past year but the calls have dwindled, Schillim said. In face-to-face interviews, he feels he's at a disadvantage because of his age, duration of unemployment, and his teeth. Schillim said he has lost more than 100 pounds thanks to gastric bypass surgery 12 years ago, but he suffered a somewhat common complication from the procedure when he lost most of his teeth.

He said he lives in cramped house with his wife and three grown sons, who've been able to find some part-time work. If Schillim's benefits run out before he finds a job, he said he might apply for food stamps.

"I didn't apply for them yet because I got boys that's working and because I don't feel it's right," he said. "I don't want to be accused of being a taker."

Not that he feels like much of a maker. "I feel like I'm a hindrance to society," he said. "I'm disposable."

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