By ANGIE JACKSON
Capital News Service
LANSING – More than 32,300 Upper Peninsula residents are expected to exhaust their unemployment insurance by April, according to the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency.
The UP counties with the most recipients projected to max out their benefits are Marquette with 2,688, Delta with 2,605 and Houghton with 2,357.
Tawni Ferrarini, an economics professor at Northern Michigan University, said that once benefits of up to $362 per week are no longer available, the next step for unemployed workers is to “think strategically into the future.”
But after two years out of the job market, Ferrarini said the unemployed are at a large disadvantage in finding a new job.
“With benefits, people have reasons to stay unemployed longer because of that cushion,” she said. “But their skills aren’t as fresh as when they’re engaged in the job market.”
Statewide, more than 324,200 people are expected to exhaust their 99 weeks of coverage by April.
Ferrarini advises those approaching the end of their benefits to continue their education to acquire competitive skills.
“The responsibility lies within the individual,” she said.
Once collecting benefits, displaced workers are required to make one visit to Michigan Works!, a state agency that, among other things, offers job counseling and connection to job training opportunities. But after one visit, the choice to seek employment is up the displaced worker.
“It’s pretty typical to see a percentage of people once at the very beginning of their unemployment and at the end, when it dawns on them that their benefits are running out,” said Robert Eslinger, executive director of business services for the Michigan Works! job force board in Marquette.
Mark Miller, a Salvation Army case manager in Iron Mountain, said long-term unemployment isn’t a result of failure of character. It’s an economic structural problem.
“These people want to be out there earning a living and contributing to society,” he said. “But when you pull the Michigan Works! list for jobs in the area, they just aren’t there.”
Eslinger said the region needs certified auto mechanics and welders.
Regardless, the future appears grim to Miller.
“I don’t see much change in the near future. We’re looking forward without a lot of enthusiasm,” he said.
Among other services, nonprofit organizations such as the Salvation Army help connect the unemployed with job opportunities and provide food, emergency relief and utility assistance. But the funds for such relief programs are often spread thin, and many have waiting lists of up to two years, Miller said.
And even displaced workers who currently receive unemployment benefits live on a “meager existence” and will face tough times as winter approaches, Miller said.
“Moving into the heating season, folks who aren’t getting benefits are going to start getting behind on bills, and they’ll have to so some tradeoffs,” he said.
Timothy Hilton, a social work professor at Northern Michigan University, said the problem in the UP isn’t just lack of jobs. It’s the lack of job quality, too.
“A lot of higher-paying jobs up here – manufacturing, forestry, mining – aren’t always plentiful,” he said. “We want people to work, but when they’re only working part-time, it doesn’t make sense to lose their benefits.”
But when benefits are exhausted, Miller said many people will compete to enter the workforce again, mostly for part-time jobs, and rely more heavily on Michigan’s safety net of services.
“They’ve got one foot on the grave and the other on a banana peel,” he said. “People can’t get 40 hours a week to save their soul.”
Hilton said it’s a cycle that continues to “churn the pool of bad jobs.”
But as bleak as the current economic situation may be for the unemployed in Michigan, Ferrarini predicted better times ahead.
“The United States has a solid history of innovation. So whatever’s coming down the pipeline, it will make us better and stronger.”