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Friday, April 27 Local

Suburbs not exempt from unemployment vote

Elected officials in Washington who voted against extending unemployment benefits should talk to people like Tommika Police.

"We didn't have Christmas this year, not really," she said after exiting the state unemployment office recently. "We got a coat for my son at our church where they were collecting donated coats."

Tommika has a job at an eyeglass shop in Milford, but her hours were cut to only five per week, and she just learned that she won't be working at all until at least mid-January.

"There wasn't much demand at all for glasses before Christmas -- for a lot of people, they're just too expensive," she said.

With Congress refusing to extend long-term unemployment benefits, Dec. 28 was the last day for assistance for more than 1 million people nationwide and 26,000 in Connecticut, forcing the jobless to consider moving, taking minimum wage work after already slashing household budgets, and pawning personal possessions to make ends meet.

The end of the five-year program that extended benefits for the long-term jobless affected 1.3 million people immediately and will affect hundreds of thousands more who remain jobless in the months ahead. Under the program, the federal government provided an average monthly stipend of $1,166.

More Information

Long-term federal
unemployment help
Expired: Dec. 28, 2013
Impact: 26,000 in Connecticut and 1 million nationwide
Annual cost: $26 billion
Average monthly stipend: $1,166
What they're saying: U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, called the decision "unconscionable."

While the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress want to continue the program, the extensions were dropped from a budget deal struck last month and Republican lawmakers have balked at its $26 billion annual cost.

Foreclosure on the horizon?

Tommika, 40, grew up in Stamford. After getting married in 1998, the couple purchased their home on Bridgeport's upper East End in 2000. The house isn't in foreclosure yet, but soon will be. The bank was giving them a break on their mortgage for a time, but soon she'll be looking at a $900 monthly bill for the home loan and taxes. There's a relatively small car loan, too.

"It's not that much, but if you don't have it coming in ..." she said. "I'm not in foreclosure yet, but in February I will be if things don't change."

Her husband works for a large maintenance company, but even though he's a supervisor, he doesn't make enough to make ends meet. The company cleans big box stores throughout the region, so he's on the road a lot.

The job for which she was collecting unemployment was lost some months ago. Their son is 15 now, and he's tall for his age.

"This is difficult for him because he's not the sort of kid who can blend into the woodwork," she said. "He needs sneakers, uniform shirts, that sort of thing. We try to put away money for these things, but it's hard. At his age, everybody looks at you to see what you have. But at least he's old enough to understand what we're going through."

She also has a daughter, 22, who is a senior in college.

"She does her part, but she still needs help," Tommika said.

Tommika remains upbeat, though. She has her certificate in medical billing and coding, and she hopes that with new federal requirements to digitize medical records, there will be a physician's office willing to take her on board soon.

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"But I still have to pay down my student loan," she said.

Suburbs not exempt from pain

The pain is being felt even in leafy Easton, where street names like "Kellers Farm Road" and curving driveways seem to make its residents immune to cuts in unemployment checks.

But talk to Ellen -- she didn't want her last name used in this story -- and a picture of desperation emerges.

"I got my last check this week, and yes, it's pretty grim," she said. "I've been dependent on unemployment -- because of my age, the job search is taking a lot longer than I had hoped."

Ellen, who until recently lived in New Canaan, is a global marketing professional, and for years she enjoyed a good paycheck.

"But I've had to swallow my pride -- I also had to get help with food and with fuel from ABCD," she said.

ABCD, which is based in Bridgeport, is the anti-poverty community service organization for the region.

Ellen is over 55 now, making her search all the more difficult.

"That seems to be the magic number," she said. "I've been supporting myself forever. I even put my older daughter through college, so this is a new dynamic for me. I never wanted to turn to others for help."

Her younger son is 17, and he's had some issues that have required treatment and visits to the physician, Ellen said. She's divorced and her child-support payments dried up a decade ago.

DeLauro: `Unconscionable' act

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, said there will be about 26,000 people in Connecticut "thrown into a desperate state" by the benefit cut-off.

"Most troubling is the failure to extend unemployment insurance for the millions of long-term unemployed during the Christmas season," she said, calling the move by Congress "unconscionable."

The end of the program may prompt a drop in the nation's unemployment rate, but not necessarily for a good reason. People out of work are required to look for work to receive unemployment benefits. As benefits disappear, some without jobs will stop looking for work out of frustration and will no longer be counted as unemployed, according to experts.

This trend has already emerged in North Carolina, which started cutting off extended benefits in July. The state's unemployment rate went down -- from 8.8 percent in June to 7.4 percent in November -- even though the number of North Carolina residents who said they had jobs rose only slightly in that time.

Back in Easton, Ellen said those in Congress who insist that people will "grow dependent" on longer-term unemployment have it all wrong.

"It's quite the opposite -- I just need a little help until I can get back on my feet," she said. "I'm really, really thankful that Connecticut offers the help that it does, because without that, I don't know what I would do. I just wish some of those in Congress would try this for a few months."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

jburgeson@ctpost.com; 203-330-6403; http://twitter.com/johnburgeson

John Burgeson|Staff Writer