Jack Schraeter has applied for roughly 130 jobs in the last nine months. He once ran a foreign recruitment program for a large health care organization, but COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions led to his position getting eliminated last fall.
Despite his efforts, Schraeter, 72, of Yarmouth, has only gotten one interview this year. Now he is one of the roughly 21,500 Mainers losing federal unemployment benefits this week with pandemic-related unemployment programs expiring. Another 5,400 people receiving state benefits will no longer get a $300 weekly federal supplement.
The end of expanded benefits nationally comes as COVID-19 has surged again, with the daily case rate up tenfold from mid-July in Maine. New unemployment claims have steadily declined in recent months as employers raised pay to attract scant workers. That belies a mismatch for many who remain unemployed, with women and older workers overrepresented among them.
Some have submitted dozens of applications but received few callbacks. Others, concerned about their health or unable to find child care, cannot find a work-from-home job. Older Mainers worry about their health or question whether their age is being held against them. Many are worried about how they will cover rent, mortgage or other basic expenses this fall.
The virus surge makes for a poor time for benefits to expire, said Michael Hillard, an economics professor at the University of Southern Maine, noting a recent survey showed more people were concerned about returning to work due to the virus and kids are more likely to be sent home due to outbreaks at school, making it harder for parents to work outside the home.
“It’s in society’s interest to give people the ability to not wind up being homeless because they don’t have a place for their kid to go every day,” he said.
Business groups have sometimes blamed the expanded benefits for struggles finding workers this summer, although an initial study found negligible differences in job growth between states that cut benefits and states including Maine that kept them. Maine’s unemployment rate as of July was 4.9 percent, down significantly from earlier in the pandemic and lower than the national rate of 5.4 percent, but still nearly double the 2.7 percent rate the state saw in July 2019.
But the slow recovery from the pandemic-induced recession has not helped all Mainers equally. Despite making up a smaller share of the labor force than men pre-pandemic, women accounted for the majority of unemployment claims as of July, the most recent monthly data available from the state. Mainers aged 65 and older are also overrepresented among those receiving unemployment insurance, according to state data, accounting for about 12 percent of those receiving benefits in July despite being only 9 percent of the workforce in 2020.
Schraeter is among those who thinks his age might be holding him back as seeks jobs in fields including marketing or human resources. While it is illegal for employers to ask an applicant’s age, he said many of the applications he has filled out ask when he received his degree.
He receives Social Security benefits, and said he is lucky to be largely insulated from the dire financial effects of joblessness that have struck other Mainers. But he is not ready to retire, saying he fears boredom and wants to keep doing meaningful work.
“I’ve always said, if I can get in front of somebody — every time I’ve gotten face-to-face in front of an employer, I’ve gotten the job,” he said.
About 1,700 people currently on federal unemployment benefits are likely eligible for state benefits, according to the Maine Department of Labor. Workers in retraining programs can also qualify for dislocated worker benefits, and may be able to enroll once the federal benefits expire.
A Bangor woman in her 60s, who asked to be identified only by her middle name, Anne, because she currently has applications out and did not want companies that might hire her to read about her recent struggles, said she applied for jobs at several large retailers to no avail. She looked into training programs hoping to improve her computer skills, but found few options.
Anne has a part-time job right now, working just two or three hours per week, which has allowed her to continue receiving unemployment benefits while she looks to work more. But her financial situation will grow more precarious with benefits expiring. After she pays all bills, she said she expects to have around $150 left over, which she hopes to be able to save in the short-term.
“I don’t know if I’ll need a car repair or medicine that I have to pay a copay with, so I’m not going to be buying a lot of fuel and traveling around, I’m not going to be buying any household items. I’m just going to be in limbo, and hope that I can make ends meet,” she said.
Hillard, the economics professor, noted there could be secondary effects as people who had been receiving unemployment cut back on spending, an economic shock that comes on top of the delta variant surge and a disappointing August jobs report that came out Friday. While conditions have improved compared to earlier in the pandemic, he said it will take additional time to resolve disruptions to supply chains and the labor market.
“Compared to where we were a year ago, I would have a lot more optimism now that this will work out,” he said, “but it might take another six months to a year.”