Region's jobless fear end to benefits on Jan. 1

dworthington@heraldonline.comNovember 27, 2012 

  • Regional impact Federal emergency employment compensation assistance is set to expire Jan. 1. An estimated 2 million people will lose assistance nationwide. South Carolina estimates 29,221 people will be affected. The number of people affected regionally: York County;910 Kershaw County;512 Lancaster County;504 Chester County;335 Fairfield County;249

Brian Burr and Jill Rogers stood in line at the Rock Hill office of SC Works, clutching their paperwork, seeking a glimmer of opportunity.

Burr has been out of work for more than a year. Rogers has a part-time job, but says she is just “slightly working.”

They stood in line Tuesday, hoping to get any news about job possibilities.

If nothing comes up for Burr he will join the up to 2 million people nationwide who will see their federal unemployment benefits expire Jan. 1. It’s estimated 910 people in York County will lose benefits, 504 in Lancaster County and 335 in Chester County.

Overall, 29,000 residents in South Carolina will be affected. Ending the federal emergency assistance will remove $6.2 million from the state’s economy each week, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.

In South Carolina, the average payment is $239 weekly, the maximum is $326.

As the deadline nears, Burr and Rogers hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

“It’s a scary thought, I don’t know what will happen,” Burr said.

“Pray we don’t end up homeless,” Rogers said.

Unless Congress extends them, federal emergency unemployment benefits will end in about four weeks. In some cases, the emergency program, combined with state assistance, gave people up to 99 weeks of benefits.

Burr and Rogers said they hope Congress can reach a compromise and extend the benefits. “It seems they just don’t care,” Burr said.

Ending the federal benefits has been anticipated for some time. The Middle Class Tax Relief Act and Job Creation Act of 2012 continued the benefits for a year, with a cutoff date of Jan. 1, 2013.

Melanie Gallman, staff manager for the Rock Hill office of SC Works, said they have been encouraging people since the summer to improve their job-hunting skills, especially using the online resources at jobs.sc.works.org.

Currently, job seekers are required to do at least one computer search a week to remain eligible for state benefits. The state unemployment benefit period is 20 weeks.

Gallman said ending the federal benefits won’t lessen the office’s workload.

“The frame of mind of people here will change,” she said. “They specifically now will be looking for jobs.”

The possibility of even more competition for jobs concerns Kevin Palmer who has been out of work for eight months. Palmer said he submits between 30 and 40 jobs applications weekly and had an interview Tuesday.

Lou Pantuosco, an economics professor at Winthrop University, said ending the federal emergency benefits should not increase the unemployment rate. He said two things will likely happen, the number of people dropping out of the labor force will increase and some people will be more motivated to find employment. The result could be a slight decrease in the jobless rate.

The addition of 900 people to the local nonprofit network providing safety-net assistance will be challenging, said Debbie Hayworth, president of the United Way of York County.

She encouraged those seeking assistance to first call 211 where counselors can listen to their needs and direct them to available help.

“People need to eat and a place to stay warm,” she said. “I hope we can provide resources to keep people in their homes.”

The Salvation Army and the Clover Area Assistance Center have just received $140,000 in federal aid that can provide one-time assistance for rent, mortgage payment or utilities, she said. SC Help – https://www.scmortgagehelp.net –also can provide mortgage assistance, she said.

Losing the federal extension program also has caused the state’s Department of Employment and Work Force to lay off people. Last month, the agency laid off 55 people. It plans to cut an additional 81 jobs by June. Officials hope to make those cuts through attrition. About 1,100 currently work for the agency, which operates off federal funds.

South Carolina’s unemployment rate was 8.6 percent in October. It hadn’t been that low since November 2008. In the interim, it stayed above 10 percent for 32 months, peaking at 12 percent in November and December of 2009.

York County’s unemployment rate for October was 9.4 percent, the second straight month it was below 10 percent. Chester’s rate was 12.7 percent and Lancaster’s 10.8 percent.

Last year, legislators cut the maximum number of state-governed benefits from 26 weeks to 20. At the time, that reduced the total number from 99 to 78 weeks when including the federally paid extensions.

The Associated Press contributed

Don Worthington 803-329-4066

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