Out of full-time work since 2006, LaDona King says she's nearly penniless, having used up her retirement savings, exhausted unemployment benefits, and tapped relatives for as much help as possible. Before long, she may have to move in with one of her two sisters.
Even as she spends 40 to 55 hours a week looking for work, she's founded a swelling national grass-roots movement to aid people like her: the so-called 99ers. Named for the maximum number of weeks the jobless can now collect unemployment insurance (UI), these long-term jobless are clamoring for faster job creation and extended jobless benefits.
In the short term, many activist 99ers are pushing for passage of the Americans Want to Work Act, a Senate bill that would provide 20 additional weeks – a so-called Tier V – of unemployment insurance. The 99ers, who often find each other through social media, also talk about organizing around other related issues. Although their ranks are growing, they face an uphill battle persuading Congress to act.
"There are superpolitical head winds now for any advocacy for the unemployed," says Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project, a research and advocacy group in New York .
Out of work since January 2008, Gregg Rosen of Bucks County, Pa., has had only two job interviews. "Both times, I was told I was overqualified," says the former marketing executive for a large Philadelphia-based teleservices firm. The longer he's out of work, the less desirable employers find him. Mr. Rosen exhausted his UI benefits at the end of March and is now seeing his savings evaporate, he says.
By contrast, Rosen's activism is expanding. In March, he created an informational website, tier5.webs.com. In September, he cofounded the American 99ers' Union, a collection of 18 groups, representing some 100,000 people, focused on getting the Americans Want to Work bill passed, Rosen says.
Once Congress reconvenes after the Nov. 2 elections, such legislation will face resistance, many experts predict. For one thing, the current maximum UI coverage of 99 weeks is already 34 weeks longer than during the 1974-75 recession, previously the longest stretch of coverage. For another, Congress seems disinclined to boost spending on social programs, especially if Republicans make gains in the elections. Some observers say Congress may have trouble renewing even the existing extensions of unemployment insurance when they expire Nov. 30.
"It's hard to see Congress letting the whole [extension] program drop at the end of November," says Chad Stone, an economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a policy research group in Washington. Still, he foresees "pressure to scale back [benefits] rather than expand them."
Typically, UI programs start with up to 26 weeks of standard benefits. Those still jobless can seek up to 53 weeks of federally funded Emergency Unemployment Compensation and, in states with high unemployment, up to 20 weeks of extended benefits. In this summer's most recent extension of UI programs, Washington dropped the $25-a-week additional compensation that had been available since February 2009.
The 99ers are growing fast. Some 2 million to 4 million Americans have already exhausted their benefits, according to Michael Thornton, writer/editor of an online publication, the Rochester Unemployment Examiner. This month, some 91,000 UI claimants join their ranks every week, he estimates.
Many 99er activists aim to keep fighting for UI benefits until jobs start growing robustly. "We are desperate," says Mignon Veasley-Fields of Los Angeles, who exhausted her UI benefits in June.
King says she became a "zealot for the unemployed" as an antidote to her previous "deep depression" caused by joblessness. A former legal compliance officer at a San Diego mortgage-lending firm, she couldn't land any full-time work before her UI benefits ran out this March.
"I said I'm not going down without a fight," she says. Last year, learning about the possibility of legislation extending unemployment benefits – what became Tier 3 and Tier 4 of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program – she got involved. Her activism eventually led to her joining examiner.com to produce a blog, launch a blog-talk radio show, and create the website Jobless Unite Tier 5 to Survive!!!!, among other projects.
"I am back to having a happy persona," she says. "Even though I'm scared to death, I am able to keep a joyous attitude, and through contact with others in my position, I can keep a perspective on how blessed I am."
Even if the Americans Want to Work Act doesn't get passed, Rosen plans to keep soldiering on: "Our minds have not diminished. This activism is another outlet helping us to remain creative and take different approaches to try to bring about change."