Hungry for work
Benefits for the long-term unemployed started running out this month
The recession isn’t over for the many people looking for work in Chico.
Among the thousands of locals struggling to make ends meet are Kane and Kate Brassington, who had been friends for 13 years before deciding to tie the knot a year ago. Kate had been a single parent to twin daughters and was attending Chico State. When Kane was laid off from his job as a visual-effects specialist in the Bay Area, working on films such as Disney’s Enchanted and Cats & Dogs II, he was delighted to join her in Chico.
He figured his unemployment benefits would help him get by until he found a job. That was a year ago, and Kane’s last check came the first week of December with a notice that he had run out of benefits. He is one of nearly 7,000 people in Chico who have been receiving unemployment benefits, and among some 1,635 people who have exhausted all of their benefits, including federal extensions of up to 99 weeks (which ended on Dec. 5, pending congressional approval of jobless-benefits extensions to “99-weekers”).
Now they’re trying to figure out how to get by.
Kate, a spring graduate of Chico State, was the president of the math honor society and wants to be a teacher. But she can’t find a job either.
“I was better off in school,” she said during a recent interview.
Kate earned her substitute teaching credential for Tehama County, and is attempting to get work there in that field. The couple hope that will pan out very soon, but even then the work will not be enough to support the whole family.
The Brassingtons sent in part of the December rent on their house in north Chico with a note saying they didn’t have the rest. It broke their hearts when, playing a math game using coins with their daughters recently, one of them asked, “Is that all the money we have left?”
From the time they drop the girls off at school until they pick them up after 2 p.m., the Brassingtons say, they are looking for work. They’ve applied for numerous jobs online, spending half-days preparing cover letters and résumés, only to find out the potential jobs were phishing scams. Sometimes they wonder if anyone gets to see their applications when hundreds have applied before them.
Kane recalled an instance when he was excited about getting an interview, but when he got there it turned out to be a pyramid scheme. His most promising lead is a job that would take them to Australia in February. They hope there will be other options.
“We really, really want to stay in Chico, but both of us have had to look for jobs elsewhere,” Kate said.
The Brassingtons are among thousands of Californians trying desperately to keep their heads above water financially.
As of Dec. 6, more than 261,000 workers in California ran out of all available unemployment benefits up to the 99-week maximum, according to the California Employment Development Department. For about two years, federal extensions have allowed the unemployed to collect benefits well beyond the standard 26 weeks, due to economic hard times. Those extensions started to run out this month.
Congress is working on an agreement that lumps unemployment-benefit extensions in with tax concessions for the well-off, but it is unclear how that will affect those who already have run out of extensions.
James Cox, 61, of Chico, isn’t new to the unemployment scene. In a Feb. 4 CN&R article, “Out of work and weary,” he discussed being unemployed long-term. He had found work since then, but lost that job in parks and recreation due to budget cuts. Now, he’s collecting unemployment benefits instead.
“Once I got a job, it was great,” he said. “But now I am down to $84 every two weeks, and that sucks.”
Cox says he’s been staying at the Torres Community Shelter the whole time. Working was not enough to get him a place to live. When asked if he thought things were different now that the recession had supposedly ended, he said no. “Seeing is believing,” he added.
Cox didn’t know if he would be cut off benefits soon or not.
He’s not unlike the countless others who may be wondering the same thing. Checks and notices don’t show people where they fit into a complex system of five tiers of extensions based on different filing deadlines. “Branch officials are working on a method of notifying people about the status of their unemployment benefits,” said Patrick Joyce, a spokesman for the Employment Development Department.
Brad Montgomery, executive director of the Torres Shelter, said there are many impediments to employment in the Chico area and among those he works with at the shelter. He noted that Butte County was already one of the poorest counties in California, with poverty rate estimated at 20.7 percent in 2008. Since that time, the shelter has seen an increase in guests, averaging 73 people a night, up from an average of 61 per night in 2009.
“We’ll still need help if the economy stabilizes,” he said.
While at the shelter, an average of 18 percent of the guests are securing or retaining jobs, down from 21 percent two years ago. The figure doesn’t reflect whether those jobs are enough to become financially self-sufficient. Some get jobs against all odds, Montgomery said, but those are people who are out every day pounding on doors.
In the long term, Montgomery said, Chico really needs economic development—more businesses and more jobs. However, extending unemployment benefits is a practical answer to the current economic situation.
A recent EDD press release warns that 454,000 Californians currently on unemployment extensions stand to lose their unemployment benefits by the end of the year if Congress doesn’t act in time.
Inaction could prove disastrous, yet the Brassingtons remain positive.
At church, Kane lit a candle of hope for his family and two other families there who are all trying to find employment. In the evenings, they’ve been making homemade Christmas gifts with the girls. Instead of going places that cost money, they go to the library or to community events like the downtown holiday tree lighting.
“Neither of us ever thought we’d be in this situation,” Kate said.
Instead of getting excited about buying superfluous things, they now are jazzed about getting groceries.
“The future is unsure,” she summed up.