WASHINGTON (PAI) – Frank Farr is worried.

The 13-year veteran of Bricklayers Local 1 in New York, who sports a trim goatee and a small earring, has been out of work since October. And the West Babylon, Long Island, resident, who provides for his wife, two kids and 86-year-old mother who lives with the family, doesn’t see any work coming along for “another five or six months.”

By that time, he figures, his state jobless benefits will run out. And unless Congress extends federal jobless benefits again – they expired Nov. 30 – he’ll be out of income, just like 800,000 other workers who lost the federal aid that day and 2.2 million who face losing it by the end of December.

“It’s hell,” Farr says of being unemployed.

The benefits “don’t cover the rent, let alone food or anything else,” he adds.

And employers are taking advantage of the jobless in the Great Recession, Farr told Press Associates Union News Service. “They can get away with paying next to nothing,” to workers, he explained.

So Farr and hundreds of other jobless workers, among them sheet metal workers, painters, and steel workers, jammed into a Capitol hearing room on Dec. 1 to tell why workers need the jobless aid. Then they fanned out over Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers for the legislation.

The workers got pledges of support from Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, top congressional Democrats – led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. – and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler. All promised to fight hard for a new extension of the federal jobless aid, at a time of 9.6 percent unemployment.

What they didn’t get was the legislation itself. Senate Labor Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said Republican maneuvers “right out of the 19th century” stopped the new round of jobless benefits in its tracks.

That failure got the workers and the Democrats, upset. That’s because millions of the long-term unemployed have exhausted their 26 weeks of state unemployment insurance benefits, and thus rely on the federal aid. Farr says he’ll fall into that category once his New York jobless benefits, now $405 a week, run out. Without the federal extended benefits, he’ll have no income.

That’s a sharp contrast to the steady work Farr had before. He’s had only “four

or five” nibbles since being laid off, from a firm that at one time employed 500 people

and is now down to 30, “and they’re all the supervisors.” Those companies hiring now would pay only half of the hourly wages Farr earned before.

Farr won’t be the only one hurting when jobless benefits run out. Other workers told assembled lawmakers, unionists, Solis and Shuler of what life is like when you’re living unemployment check to unemployment check – and the checks stop.

Russ Meyer, a 35-year-old marketing copywriter from Portland, Ore., has had nothing but occasional free-lance work since he was laid off more than two years ago.

“For many people like me, getting back to the levels of income we had is a fantasy,” he said. Meyer said the unemployed have exhausted their other resources to keep food on their families’ tables and roofs over their heads.

“It isn’t about running through my savings. They’re gone. It isn’t about turning to family and friends for help. We have. They’re tapped out,” he told the crowd in demanding the feds step in. Oregon has one of the nation’s highest state jobless rates.

Anthony Roebuck, a sheet metal worker from Denver, who installed heating ventilation and air conditioning systems until last April, said the jobless want to work, contrary to the myths propounded about them by foes of jobless aid.

Some 20 percent of metal workers are unemployed and another 20 percent are under-employed, the union says.

“Some people think we’re just sitting around and collecting our checks, but I’ve tried to get a job every day,” Roebuck told the crowd. He did get one offer since April, from a firm in Utah. That state is known as a right-wing GOP anti-union bastion. Roebuck had to turn it down: moving would have put his wife out of work, solving nothing.

At least one employer, a Honeywell uranium processing plant in southern Illinois, is using congressional inaction on jobless benefits to try to force its union workers – whom it locked out five months ago – to accept a substandard contract. Honeywell told the unionists it figures workers will have to yield to its demands for job cuts and unlimited rights to contract out work when their jobless benefits expire.

USW Local 7-669 president Darrell Lillie and member John Paul Smith, of Metropolis, Ill. came for the rally and to lobby lawmakers for jobless aid, because the federal benefits are keeping them and 228 other workers at Honeywell.

Honeywell CEO David Cote, a member of President Obama’s bipartisan debt and deficit commission, “is trying to reduce middle class jobs” at the Metropolis plant, they said. That throws the workers onto unemployment, adding to the federal deficit and debt, they noted.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.