Correction: This story has been corrected to show that of the 120,000 people who were cut off unemployment benefits before they found a job from summer to 2008 to November 2012, 70 percent have not yet found work.
A program Congress has extended 10 times over the last four years is expected to end this month. The emergency unemployment compensation program has been a safety net for 400,000 people in Washington since the summer of 2008. Four years later 70 percent of people who were cut off from benefits before they found work are still looking. That's about 84,000 people.
One of them is Amy Reed, who lost her human resources job in 2009. Her mortgage software company had been struggling in the harsh lending environment following the housing bust. She was the family breadwinner, with a small child and a husband studying for his doctorate. Being unable to work hit her hard.
"I was always proud that I could work so my husband could pursue his passion, which is science," she said. "I would get a little out of sorts with people who said, 'Oh, it's great, you can just stay home.' They didn’t realize that my income was so crucial to the family."
When the benefits ran out after almost two years, Reed cut meat out of their meals to reduce food costs, and the family began to eat through savings. Reed kept the mortgage paid and kept her husband in school. As the months wore on, she dropped professional memberships she needed to qualify for a job in her field, human resources.
"Gosh, it's a slippery slope," she said. "It's hard to stay positive about it because you realize what you’re losing."
Christopher Clow's unemployment benefits ran out a few months after Reed's. Unlike her, Clow was on the edge in no time. He sold his prized possession to keep his apartment for the first month after the benefits ended. It was a 1978 Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. But the next month’s rent was the last he could pay, and he was evicted in July 2012. Clow slept on a friend's couch and tried to busk, but his health quickly worsened. He found his safety net at Harborview Hospital and later with Harborview’s Pioneer Square Clinic.
It is not lost on Clow that he's homeless because his jobless benefits ran out. But he's not angry. "Disappointed and sad, but certainly not mad, because it was a privilege as an American who's paid taxes in the past. I deserved the privilege, but only for 99 weeks."
It's not clear what happens to most people whose unemployment benefits expire in Washington. The state looks for them in wage records. About 70 percent of them, or 84,000 people, are not listed among those working. That’s been a consistent finding.
"That’s really troubling," said Sheryl Hutchison, a spokeswoman for the state Employment Security Department. "It's showing that these individuals who are unemployed for a long term really are having challenges that extend even beyond their benefit."
The question is what’s supposed to happen now. The economy seems to be recovering but the state's jobless rate remains high: 8.2 percent. But every story of long-term unemployment is different. In Reed's case, the crisis is over. Her husband got his doctorate and has had a good job since last summer. Yet Reed is still not working and will not feel right until she does.
Clow has stopped looking for work. He spends his days looking for food, shelter and medical help. He's forging on, but he is not near his goals: a steady income and his own apartment.
"I'm trying to meet every challenge in a way that will move me forward," he said.