- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

In the coming weeks and months, hundreds of thousands of jobless Americans will exhaust their unemployment benefits, just when it’s harder than ever to find a job.

Congress extended unemployment aid twice last year, allowing people to draw up to 59 weeks of benefits. Now, as the recession drags on, a rolling wave of people who were laid off early last year will lose them.

Precise figures are hard to determine, but Wayne G. Vroman, an economist at the Urban Institute, estimates that up to 700,000 people could exhaust their extended benefits by the second half of this year.

Some will find new jobs, but prospects are grim: Layoffs are projected to continue, and many economists expect the jobless rate - already at 8.5 percent - to hit 10 percent by year’s end.

“It’s going to be a monstrous problem,” Mr. Vroman said.

U.S. employers shed 663,000 jobs in March, and the jobless rate now stands at its highest in a quarter-century. Since the recession began in December 2007, a net total of 5.1 million jobs have disappeared.

Those who know that their unemployment aid is about to run out are counting the days, taking on odd jobs, moving in with relatives and fretting about the future.

“My biggest fear is we’ll lose the house,” said Hernan Alvarez, 54, an Orlando, Fla., construction worker who lost his job in July and whose benefits will end in four weeks. “The only thing I can do is keep looking for work and hope tomorrow will be better than today.”

That so many people have remained on aid for more than a year underscores the depth and duration of the recession. If the downturn extends into May, it will be the longest recession since the Great Depression.

The jobs crisis it has created has proved worse than most economists had forecast - not to mention what lawmakers expected when they extended jobless benefits last year.

In March, nearly a quarter of the unemployed had been without work for six months or more, the highest proportion since the 1981-82 recession.

And the problem will probably get worse. Employers typically are reluctant to hire even months after a recession has officially ended. In the 1990-91 and 2001 recessions, the jobless rate peaked more than a year after the recovery began.

“What comes next, I’m afraid, will be the mother of all jobless recoveries,” said Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group, a consulting firm. “While we may emerge from recession from a statistical standpoint later this year, most Americans will be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a recession and a recovery the next 12 months.”

That’s grim news for Sterling Long, 40, of Pittsburgh, who said he’s willing to take any job available to support his wife and four children. He has cleaned houses and done other odd jobs since being laid off from a plumbing distributor in March 2008. He is dreading the expiration of his benefits this month.

“I’ll work in McDonald’s,” he said. “I got no pride as long as the people in this house eat, have hot water - that’s all I need.”

Mr. Long, like many of the long-term unemployed, has tried to learn new skills. For three months, he spent Saturdays and Sundays working to get his commercial driver’s license. That led to work as a cargo loader for a couple of months at the supermarket warehouse. But since then, nothing.

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