The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


December 2, 2010

What happens when benefits end?

Sunbury resident struggles to pay bills, may leave area

No one thought they'd be out of work this long, including James Burke.

The 45-year-old Sunbury man has been employed off and on since losing his full-time job as a machine operator in December 2007. He worked for Paper Magic Group, then in Elysburg, but which packed up operations and moved them to China.

Regaining full-time employment has proved elusive for Burke, one of 83,000 Pennsylvanians whose federal unemployment benefits ran out at midnight.

"I'm watching my taxes go up, and I don't even have money to have taxes taken from," Burke said Wednesday. "It's pathetic."

When the U.S. Senate failed to extend the benefits Tuesday, about 2 million Americans saw their financial safety net disappear.

And just how much money people are losing depends largely on what they made and where they live.

"Generally, the (unemployment) program is set up to temporarily replace about 50 percent of your salary up to a certain point," said David Smith, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

In Pennsylvania, the maximum amount a person could collect was $564 a week. The average payment in the state has been $299 a week, he said.

Benefits vary

Smith said the agency couldn't provide the average unemployment amount for individual counties.

The amount a person is paid varies greatly by state. For instance, Florida's maximum is about $275, Smith said.

What's important about this is that payments from the federal government and state are the same, Smith said. Therefore, a Pennsylvania resident collecting the average $299 would get that in state or federal benefits.

The Emergency Unemployment Compensation program provided federal money to pick up the slack after state benefits, which last 26 weeks, were exhausted. EUC started in spring 2008 and gave a maximum of 53 weeks of additional benefits.

People who exhausted EUC benefits then became eligible for the Extended Benefits program. This offered 20 more weeks of benefits at the same amount, funded by both federal and state governments.

Burke's story has a little twist to it. Because he lost his Paper Magic job when the company moved operations overseas, he became eligible for trade readjustment allowances. This is income for people whose unemployment compensation has run out and whose jobs went overseas.

Among TRA benefits are paid training for a job, financial help in searching for a job in other areas or moving to where jobs are more plentiful.

Burke's TRA benefit was $672 every two weeks, and he attended training at All State Career School to get a commercial driver's license. The one-month course was $5,000.

Burke said sometime at the end of 2009, the TRA funds were exhausted. By then, he was eligible for federal unemployment compensation.

He'll take anything

Like many others, at this point Burke said he'll do any kind of job.

"I got the last of the money yesterday," $60 from the Extended Benefits program, he said. There is no other income for the moment.

"If I knew I was going to be off this long, I'd have gotten an associate's degree in electronics," he said.

His CDL license isn't valid right now; license holders who aren't driving for 60 days must take a refresher course, which costs $1,500.

Right now, that's out of the question, Burke said.

While he has no dependents, Burke gives his parents, with whom he lives in Sunbury, $400 a month in rent to cover living expenses.

Burke doesn't have health insurance. If he gets sick, "I just deal with it," he said. He cut a finger recently while trimming the end of a television cable at his parents' home. That eventually led to a hospital visit -- the super glue he used on the wound didn't hold. This led to a $400 bill.

"I never had a problem finding a job if I quit a job," Burke said. "No matter where I would work, I was doing it to make more money so I can get the vehicle and the stuff I want."

What's happened, he said "is where I've worked: plants shut down or moved, all kinds of things have happened."

All kinds of things have happened to many area people from what Major Sharon Cupp has seen. She is commanding officer for the Salvation Army in Sunbury, which along with the Milton Salvation Army, runs the Needy Family Funds program. The Daily Item is a major sponsor.

More need help

"I think there are more people (in this year's program), to be honest, I really do, " Cupp said; the program is in its 24th year. "I would say we're probably close to or over what we did last year."

The Needy Family Fund drive provides food, clothes, toys and utility payment assistance to those in need. Cupp said people are welcome to apply by contacting the Sunbury or Milton Salvation Army offices for more information.

"We always help with the subsidy of food, and we try to direct them any time we know where people are hiring," Cupp said, "but the jobs are so few and far between."

She said one man recently stopped by "and was so thankful" to her for referring him to Strong Pool and Spa on Route 11, where he got a job.

"It's just very difficult," Cupp said. "And some (people) we may never see because they are too proud."

Pride doesn't seem to be an issue for Burke, but what he'd really like is to have some semblance of his life back.

"Everything depends on a job," he said, adding he's hoping to get one that gets him out of the area.

"If you are in Sunbury, you know there is nothing here, and I mean nothing," he said. "Fleetwood closed up. Celotex shut down. They just sold Holsum."

That's why Burke is taking the job search beyond the area.

"I'm willing to relocate," he said. "I just want to go to work. I don't care where I go."

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