Desperation sets in as ‘99ers’ see unemployment benefits run out

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JD Farmer spends his days looking for a job after he was laid off in November 2008. His unemployment benefits expire next week.

JD Farmer spends his days looking for a job after he was laid off in November 2008. His unemployment benefits expire next week.

JD Farmer rents a modest, 900-square-foot house on the Westside.

Surrounded by hundreds of books, photos of his children and a “fish tremble when they hear my name” plaque, Farmer has turned the place into a home. But how long he’ll be able to remain is uncertain.

A single father, Farmer lost his job almost two years ago. He’s got the money for September’s rent. October is up in the air.

The rent is $850 a month. His unemployment checks, about $1,500 per month, are coming to an end. The last check will hit his dwindling checking account next week. It’s a long way from the days when he earned $4,000 a month.

Farmer is about to join the growing ranks of the nation’s nearly 1.5 million people whose unemployment benefits are running out after 99 weeks. After exhausting their resources, many of these “99ers” don’t know where to turn.

Their plight became political when Republicans and Democrats recently debated the pros and cons of extending unemployment benefits yet again beyond the traditional 26 weeks.

Although benefits were extended several times — most recently on July 22, when President Obama signed the Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2010 — that is scant comfort for the 1.5 million Americans who have reached the end of their benefits. Farmer is among those workers who are finding themselves between no job and no benefits.

Farmer keeps turning to the Book of Job. Through a series of disasters, Job lost everything he owned and his children. Farmer’s daughter is grown and happily married; he doesn’t have to worry about her. But he has joint custody of Ethan, his 12-year-old son.

For now, they still have a roof over their heads. And his car payment is current. This month, his son’s health insurance is paid.

Beyond that? Well, Farmer’s not really sure what he can do.

But until then, he can send out twice as many resumes per week as the state’s unemployment office requires. So he does.

He can pursue every job lead, even those he overhears in line at the grocery store. Which he does.

And he can fix hotdogs 27 different ways for Ethan and himself. So he does that, too.

The rest, he likes to say, is in the hands of “the good King.” Farmer has faith that he and his son won’t starve — or end up homeless.

Political climate

It’s a plight that thousands in Colorado may soon face.

Swelling ranks of unemployed Coloradans are running out of benefits. As of this month, 12,339 state residents will collect their last unemployment checks, said Bill Thoennes, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

About 4,000 more people will see their last checks in November.

Their numbers are likely to grow even more before they improve.

Nationally, the unemployment rate was 9.5 percent last month, and the number of workers out of work for 27 weeks or longer is 6.5 million, said Linda Nickisch, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Colorado, the unemployment rate has been 8 percent for the last three months. Because that’s lower than some of the worst-hit states, the maximum number of unemployment benefits in the Centennial State is 86 weeks. Residents in states with higher unemployment rates receive the 99 weeks of benefits.

Trying to make life OK

Farmer is a living example of statistics.

It was November 2008 when he watched the CEO of Colorado Custom Decks walk slowly down the stairs of the company’s Springs offices to deliver his news. It was the same news that millions of Americans had heard during the recession. In order to survive, the company had to downsize.

Despite having tripled sales appointments and managing all sales and marketing for the Colorado Springs showroom, Farmer was out of a job.

With all of his experience, he didn’t think it would take long to find another.

He had worked for two years at Home Depot, setting an all-time sales record in the appliance department during one month in 2007. Before that, he was marketing and operations director for five years at a maintenance and tenant-improvement company.

The next job, he believed, was just around the corner.

But in the nearly two years since, all he’s heard is that he’s either overqualified or under-qualified.

He’s not had a single job offer.

“That’s never happened in my life,” he says in amazement.

Most days, Farmer spends hours at his desk, fingers tapping at a laptop’s keyboard, searching job boards, churning out resumes and introducing himself to prospective employers.

A dozen Post-it notes with job leads are taped around the edges of his old computer monitor. A small clock on the wall ticktocks insistently.

When Ethan gets home from school, Farmer takes a break, grabbing moments to spend with his son.

On the weekends, “we go fishing and hiking a lot,” Farmer said. “It helps papa unwind from the stress of not having a regular job.”

Recently, he and Ethan built a tree house from scrap lumber collected from construction sites.

“I’ve learned there are a lot of ways to make life OK — even when it’s really hard,” he said.

That’s the one upside to his situation — the extra time he can spend with his son. But it can’t last forever — and, of course, he hopes it won’t.

Worst-case scenarios

There are two potential job leads on the horizon — but still nothing concrete.

“I won’t get my hopes up until I actually start working and see a paycheck,” he said.

He tries not to think of a worst-case scenario. He tries not to think about losing his rental, or the possibility of having to move himself and Ethan into Farmer’s mother’s small house.

So he keeps himself busy helping friends and neighbors, and by getting creative at “watching the pennies.” Taking shorter showers, for instance, and turning the thermostat down for the past two winters, or watering the lawn in the middle of the night so it retains the moisture longer.

In the grocery store, he only buys things that are on sale. He can’t buy steaks or other foods he used to keep on hand. So he’s learned to use extra seasonings to make cheaper foods more flavorful. A dash of spice and a smile go a long way toward making life seem normal.

Above all, he tries to shield Ethan from feeling deprived. Farmer just wants him to have a childhood.

Meanwhile, until he finds a job, Farmer networks with other professionals at the Pikes Peak Workforce Center. A facilitator at the center describes him as a really upbeat, positive person. “He’s appreciative, and working hard to seek work,” she said.

But life is taking its toll on Farmer.

“Not working makes you feel so worthless and useless,” he said.

It doesn’t help matters when people ask him, “Don’t you have a job, yet?” Or tell him that he just needs to try harder. Actually, he’s doing everything he knows to find work.

“You have to take care of yourself — and know you’re more important than the thing you’re facing,” he says.

Not that it’s easy on the best of days. Especially with time running out.

“I have no idea what God has planned for me, but I’m working my tail off trying not to worry,” Farmer said.

Want to help?

Click here for a copy of JD Farmer’s cover letter and resume.