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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Long-Term Unemployed Scramble As Loss Of Benefits Looms

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network
Job seekers look for work at the Worksource Oregon office in Salem.

About 45,000 people in the Northwest will face the new year without the unemployment benefits they've come to rely on.

Congress declined to extend the payments as part of a budget deal this month.

Figures from the Oregon Employment Department released on Tuesday showed yet another drop in the unemployment rate in November, to the lowest in more than five years. It's a similar story in Washington state. Idaho’s jobless rate is holding mostly steady.

But the unemployment rate is 100 percent for the folks huddled over computer terminals at the Salem unemployment office. This is the place where out of work people come to browse job listings and receive training.

And they don’t seem to be in the mood to talk to a reporter.

The frustration is evident on the faces of people here. Even the ones who are willing to speak with me.

Sophia Mequedes was a case manager for homeless and runaway teens in Salem until the non-profit she worked for lost funding. That was last spring. She’s been living off unemployment benefits since then. And she just learned that will stop at the end of this month.

Mequedes says she'll take just about any job right now.

"I am a single mom of two," she says. "So, my income will be zero when my benefits stop."

And she’ll be left with no choice but to rely on temporary assistance for needy families.

Mequedes is far from the only out of work Northwesterner who isn't picky about which job they'd take. Cindy Saroya was a teacher for nearly two decades, most recently in the Reynolds School District near Portland.

"I'm applying for jobs where I would be making 40 percent of what I made when I was teaching. 30 percent. And still applying for them, still hoping to get something, and nothing happening," says Saroya. "It's frightening and it's discouraging."

Saroya says she had always figured she'd be a teacher for the rest of her professional life. She says when she was laid off nearly 18 months ago, "It was a complete shock. It was pretty devastating really, emotionally."

Saroya says she even enrolled in bartending school this fall to try to expand her potential job options. She found herself thinking, maybe bartending isn't that different from teaching, anyway.

"You're on your feet a lot, you're talking to people a lot. A lot of my friends were thinking that it would be a really good fit for me," she says. "And I thought, why not?"

But the 54-year-old hasn't had any luck getting a gig slinging drinks, either. And her benefits are set to expire at the end of the month, too.

Of course, there's always the chance Congress could come back in January and retroactively restore them.

"We've seen them do that before," says Tom Fuller of the Oregon Employment Department. But he adds that as the nation's economy picks up, there's less of a chance Congress will extend unemployment benefits again.

"We're operating as an agency under the assumption that there's not going to be a program," says Fuller. "But if Congress does come along and pass one, we'll scramble.”

In that case, he says, people would get unemployment payments retroactively. But for now, Employment Department workers are busy contacting people whose benefits are set to expire and delivering the news that their holiday season will come with a big lump of coal this year.