Last but not least is Louise’s story, the first 99er I interviewed. When I look back now, I think of Louise’s struggle as a mom and how terrified I would be not to be able to take care of my child. I hope I’m never there, but if there’s one thing I have learned about interviewing people who have hit rock bottom is that it can happen to anyone. I’m most anxious to catch up with Louise and hear how she is doing. Check back for updates on the 99ers, and read the rest of my series on people who maxed out their unemployment after the Great Recession with Yvonne, Ricky, Susan and Doug.
I thought, that’s almost two years of checks. Someone can’t find a job after looking for two years?
Then I heard Louise’s story.
Louise Davies of Boston, Massachusetts had worked in retail for 18 years when she was laid off from Macy’s in 2008. Desperately looking for a job, she just exhausted her 99th week of unemployment.
When a person’s laid off, she normally gets about 26 weeks of unemployment from her state. But in this Great Recession, Congress has authorized additional federal tiers, which add up to 99 total weeks of unemployment benefits. Once a person gets to the fourth tier and is done with her 99 weeks, her benefits are done, no matter her job situation.
That’s where Louise is today. Ninety-nine weeks and no job in sight. She’s not alone — though there aren’t hard numbers yet, an estimated one million people could become “99ers” by the end of 2010. There are between five and six job seekers for every opening, and it is now taking people longer than ever before to find employment; the average unemployed person is out of work for a record 31.2 weeks. A quarter of the unemployed — equivalent to the population of Connecticut — have already been out of a job for more than a year.
At 40, Louise is a wife and a mom, and she’s been working since she could get her workers permit at 16.
“I used to ride my bike to my local McDonald’s for a 7 a.m. shift,” she said. “Now even they won’t hire me because I’m over-experienced.”
Job hunting is what consumes her, every day.
“I look for jobs on every available board, paper or every person I have networked with several times a day,” Louise said. “This past week, I received my first response in two months: ‘I am sorry but we believe that we have found candidates that are better suited for this position than you.'”
Her benefits have been barely keeping the family afloat since she was laid off. Her husband works for FedEx and was working on his master’s degree before this happened. Their finances are a wreck.
“We’ve had to sell our car, burn through both of our 401(k)s and charge up all our credit cards just to stay afloat,” she says. “We’re a month behind on our rent. I jump every time the doorbell or telephone ring because I know that it is someone looking for money from us, and we don’t have any.”
She says she’s looked in every field — retail, office work, human resources, customer service and anything else she can apply for. She’s even applied to wait tables, but they objected that her last waitressing job was 20 years ago.
The family’s precarious financial situation hasn’t just taken a toll on their finances. It’s taken over Louise’s life.
“I bite my nails. My hair is starting to fall out,” she said. “I have very little dignity left. I can barely look at my husband, I feel so ashamed.”
Food stamps help, she says. She’s applied for Section 8 housing, started taking the bus, and, when she’s not looking for a job, spends time playing outside with her daughter.
She says that she never thought something like this could happen to two people who have worked hard all their lives.
“I never dreamed of this world that I am living in,” she said. “I hate for my daughter to see me like this, and I hope that this will be a brief period in her life that she doesn’t remember as she grows older.”
Louise created the Facebook group, “Tier V to Survive,” to rally support around Congress extending unemployment by another tier. She says she calls her Senators and representatives and faxes them daily. She says there are millions like her who have been so hurt by this recession that they won’t be able to survive without further help.
“I feel that they are so very out of touch with us,” she said. “If they had just one relative who was going through this they would understand that we are hanging on by a fingernail.”