Area unemployed pin their hopes on Congress

Posted Dec. 05, 2010, at 7:20 p.m.

LINCOLN, Maine — Andrew Libby would have been unemployed for about 88 weeks by today if he had not received a break last month. Though he is grateful to have it, his new job, clerking at a Big Apple convenience store on Fleming Street, pays only $220 a week.

“It’s better than not having a job, but it doesn’t take care of too much,” Libby said Saturday.

A certified structural welder laid off from a job that paid a minimum $16.50 an hour, the 21-year-old Lee man and his fiancee, 20-year-old Jessica Arlo, figure they will need at least 11/2 years    before their new minimum-wage jobs can dig them out of the financial hole created by his April 2009 layoff.

“When his unemployment ran out, that’s when we really started getting behind,” Arlo said.

That’s why both said they hope that Congress passes an extension of unemployment benefits for those who have been without work for 99 weeks, though they are helping pay for it now as members of the work force.

“I know what it is like to be there and not have anything,” Libby said.

The latest extension began expiring on Wednesday. Federal and state officials estimate that benefits for 2 million Americans will expire by Christmas and 21,500 Mainers will lose benefits by June without an extension.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud finds it galling that congressional Republicans are “holding hostage” the benefits extension to unemployed workers in exchange for the extension of Bush-era tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. Democrats favor extending Bush-era tax cuts to people making as much as $250,000 and in-creasing the tax rate to Clinton-era levels for those making more than $250,000. The GOP seeks an extension across the board.

“It’s very hypocritical,” Michaud said Friday of the Republican stance. “If you talk to economists from the most liberal to the most conservative, they all say that the quickest way to get the economy going is to extend the benefits. Every dollar of benefits generates $1.67 to the economy.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins favors extending the Bush-era cuts. The nation’s top earners own some 750,000 small businesses. Ending the cuts would raise taxes $2.7 trillion on those businesses effective Jan. 1. One economist estimated that raising taxes on top earners would cost 770,000 jobs by 2012, she said.

“The fact is, this tax increase would make it difficult, if not impossible, for entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and make the necessary investments to stay competitive. When small businesses can’t invest and grow, they can’t add jobs,” Collins said in a statement.

As of Sunday, it appeared the White House and Congress were compromising — seeking to extend the reduced Bush tax rates for all income levels for perhaps two years in exchange for an unemployment benefits extension.

Libby and Arlo said they felt for those caught in the middle of the debate. His layoff came a month after his Rhode Island-based employer had spent about $10,000 on his training, he said. An eager worker, Libby already had traveled around New England to do company work.

“I would travel 500 miles for work if my phone rang,” he said.

He has moved in with Arlo’s family, mailed resumes everywhere and accumulated several thousand dollars of debt, at times losing his car insurance. With his new job, he has worked morning, evening and overnight shifts every week, badly stressing himself through lack of regular sleep, and is very eager to take on handyman work outside of his new job.

A volunteer firefighter in Lee, Libby hopes to get back on his feet financially by becoming an EMT if he can find the time and money for training.

“Everybody tells me to go to school so I won’t be unemployed, but who is going to pay for my gas or my food while I am there? I don’t have the money to live while I go to school,” Libby said. “It’s a vicious cycle. I am not going down, but I am not going up either.”

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