Nevadans grow desperate as unemployment benefits run out
The road leading up to David Walter’s Dayton home is lined with about a dozen empty houses all marked by a for sale sign barely visible amid the tall, unkempt grass.
Walter, 48, fears his home may be next.
After 24 years working in the construction industry, Walter found himself out of a job in October 2008, but at the time figured more work would eventually come. He didn’t anticipate the recession to be as bad as it has been – especially in Nevada where the unemployment rate is now 14 percent. In Lyon County, where Walter lives, the jobless rate tops 18 percent.
Today, he looks back on the months he’s spent sending out applications and making phone calls to potential employers, with no results. Every week brings another negative response or, more frustrating, no response at all.
“I’m sick to my stomach. I can’t really sleep at night,” Walter said. “I’m very stressed. I know I need to find work, I have applied for a lot of jobs. I’m not just sitting at home trying to collect unemployment.”
For Walter, his stress has only gotten worse since June after his unemployment benefits dried up. He said he watches the news to see what may have happened in the U.S. Senate, which has been at an impasse since last month over extending benefits to millions of long-term, unemployed Americans. With nearly unanimous Republican opposition, the Democratic majority has been one vote shy in the Senate to pass the extension ever since Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., died last month.
About 120,000 Nevadans receive unemployment benefits, according to the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. Since June about 6,000 of them have stopped receiving benefits each week because of the gridlock in Congress.
On Friday, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, announced Byrd’s replacement who is expected to be sworn in on Tuesday, restoring the Democrats’ 59-41 majority.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the chamber will then vote on extending unemployment benefits, which Byrd’s replacement, Carte Goodwin, is expected to support.
But the pain for Walter isn’t likely to subside anytime soon. Walter fears he may no longer be able to provide for his fiance, Marie Wagner, and her three children, including their 19-month-old daughter, Cheyenne.
“We put our motor home up for sale just to keep the roof over our heads,” Walter said. “They’re getting ready to shut the water off, too.”
Walter’s story is like many unemployed Nevadans: A long, often fruitless search for work coupled with the uncertainty of what may happen just around the corner.
After a year of searching for work, Donna Angell said most of Carson City probably has her resume by now.
Angell, who lost her job in a financial office in July 2009, has spent the last year waking up at 7:30 a.m. each day to search for work.
“I feel like a deadbeat, I feel like a failure at 43 years old,” Angell said. “I didn’t think I’d be living off of unemployment.”
She adds, “It makes you come home and cry.”
Angell cares for her two parents at their Carson City apartment – they were unable to keep their home and eventually declared bankruptcy after she lost her job.
Adding to her distress is the congressional impasse over extending unemployment benefits. Angell said she has about one week left until her checks stop coming.
“I’m just watching the news religiously every day,” she said. “They left us all stranded when they went on break and they’re still leaving us stranded now. I’m lucky to have the one check coming when there are millions of people who have nothing.”
She said she’s on a heart medication that has no generic version. She said her doctor gives her samples to help, but she spends $200 a month to refill her supply.
Her mother still works, but only three days a week. Her father can no longer work.
Trying to make their $1,200 a month rent has meant shopping at the Dollar Store, giving up salons and restaurants.
“My social life has been pretty much cut out,” Angell said. “I go to a paperback book exchange because it’s free. I try to live the best I can.”
Less than a year ago, Steve Hamilton, 44, was a district manager for Sprint in Fresno, Calif., and was making more than $100,000 a year. He and his wife would go out to restaurants four times a week and they would take five vacations a year.
Today, he’s barely making his car payments.
After losing his job in January, he’s now relying on unemployment benefits and his 401(k) to maintain his Gardnerville home with his wife.
He’s applied for 111 jobs since losing his about seven months ago. Right now, he’s on week 24 of his 26 weeks of unemployment checks. His wife also earns $14 an hour at her job.
The experience has meant scaling back for Hamilton. When their swamp cooler broke earlier this summer, instead of replacing it or taking it to be repaired, which he would have done a year ago, he tinkered with it until he had it working again – “and I’m not that mechanically inclined.”
Hamilton said he’s in negotiations with a couple of companies for a potential job, but at a 20 percent salary cut. He’s probably going to have to relocate, too.
“I always thought that if I did well, no matter what happens I would always have a job,” Hamilton said. “So that realization has been hard for me. It’s difficult to put that in words that translate. I don’t think anybody owes me, but I did not think I’d have to be doing this at this point.”
He said he’s learned some valuable lessons through this experience.
“I’m going to return people’s phone calls like I say I will,” Hamilton said. “That has been very frustrating for me.”
Marie Wagner, 41, said she has been able to support her three children at home with food stamps and child support for her two older daughters, one who recently graduated from Dayton High School.
“It’s hard to buy school supplies when you’re just barely making your monthly housing bills,” she said.
She and fiance David Walter have rented their Dayton home for two years now at $925 a month, but they fear that could end soon.
“We may end up losing the house because we can’t afford the rent payments and we may end up on the street because the shelters are full,” Wagner said.
To keep the roof over their heads, Walter said he’s trying to sell their 1984 motor home for $5,000.
“This is the first time I’ve ever felt – not hopeless, I just don’t know what to do,” he said.