These are hard times. Long-term joblessness and underemployment have brought real hardship to many working people. Local unions are getting calls from members seeking work, and maybe a helping hand. Help is there, but resources are stretched.
In the Portland area, unions refer hardship cases to Labor’s Community Service Agency (LCSA), an arm of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council. LCSA, funded in part by United Way of the Columbia-Willamette and local unions, tells union members what benefits and assistance are available to them. It also has a program of its own known as Helping Hands. Helping Hands gives one-time help, like paying past-due rent or utility bills, to members who are referred by union reps. LCSA Executive Director Vickie Burns says Helping Hands is able to help about 20 families a month, but she’s hearing 10 to 15 requests for assistance every day.
So Burns refers callers to the Carpenters Food Bank, and to the 2-1-1 call center. The union-led Carpenters Food Bank distributes food boxes the third Friday every month at the Carpenters Local 247 building on North Lombard Street in Portland. And 2-1-1, sponsored by United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, is a consolidated call center and clearinghouse that’s meant to “eliminate the maze.” It connects people to the resources they need: everything from food and shelter to clothing, health care, utility assistance, child care, job training, veterans benefits and more. In Oregon and Southwest Washington, it can be reached by dialing 2-1-1 on the phone, or visiting online at 211info.org.
The recession is especially severe in the construction trades, where unemployment is up to 30 percent in some cases.
“In the trades, I think we’ve seen more people [seeking assistance] in the last six months than in the 16 years I’ve been here combined,” Burns said. “There’s an anger out there. A lot of times I talk to people and say, ‘What do you need?’ and overwhelmingly the response is, ‘I need a job. I need to go back to work.’ They’re not thinking, ‘I need to get on public assistance.’”
But for union members in need, by far the two biggest sources of help are public: unemployment insurance and food stamps.
Unemployment insurance is the number one source of support for the out-of-work, but it doesn’t totally replace lost income, and it eventually runs out. Weekly benefits are supposed to equal 1.25 percent of the wages a worker earned in the 12-month period that ended three months before application. That works out to be about two-thirds of a workers’ previous income.
In normal times, unemployment benefits run out after 26 weeks (six months.) But high unemployment levels triggered the addition of 20 more weeks. And, seeing long-term unemployment on the rise, Congress created the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which eventually added four extension periods (totaling 53 extra weeks) for those who exhaust the initial 26 weeks. Altogether it means a worker can collect unemployment benefits for up to 99 weeks — almost two years.
But in Oregon, 600 workers a week are exhausting even that, and being dropped off the rolls. That number will rise to 10,000 a week in three to four months if Congress fails to reauthorize the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.
After unemployment insurance, the biggest source of support is food stamps, and workers shouldn’t be leery of receiving them, says Gene Evans, spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Human Services. Food stamps, now known as SNAP, are part of a social safety net that’s there to prevent people from hitting bottom. It’s a federal entitlement — not charity. In other words, any household earning below a certain income (185 percent of the poverty level) is entitled to the assistance — just as those who reach retirement age are entitled to Social Security benefits.
“Remember those tax funds that you paid all these years? They’ve gone into a safety net that’s been helping other people,” Evans said; now it can help you. “We all have our fingers crossed that things are going to pick up. But don’t let the stigma keep you from getting help for your family,” Evans said.
One in five Oregonians now receive food stamps — 741,000 individuals, 50 percent more than two years ago.
With food stamps, you don’t have to burn through savings before getting help, because only income is considered, not assets. If you earn less than $3,399 a month in a family of four, you qualify. [The figures are $2,823 for a family of three; $2,245 for a family of two, and $1,670 for a single person.] Benefits average $526 a month for a three-person household. About 75 percent of households receiving food stamps have some income. And the system has become more efficient, Evans said; applicants often get benefits — an Oregon Trail card that works just like a debit card — the same day they apply.
At United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, many members have been hit by reduced hours, and some of them are turning to the union for help, says Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Anderson. Earlier this month, local reps and shop stewards brought over 100 holiday food and toy boxes out to work sites for members identified as hardship cases.
“Union members who are not in need should step up and assist those who are in need,” Anderson said. Anderson asks members to contribute to United Way, and to designate Labor’s Community Service Agency as the recipient.
At LCSA, Burns said callers sometimes suffer from depression related to their long-term unemployment. They can be reluctant to ask for help, because they’re used to being able to provide for themselves.
“I have to be a cheerleader of sorts, and encourage them first and foremost, that they’re not alone. I tell people every day: ‘You’ve paid in. Now it’s your turn to reach out for some assistance.’”