There was once a time when Evelyne Ello Hart spent her days helping others. As the executive director of the African Women's Coalition, she helped the region's African immigrants cope the culture shock of a new country and city. She connected the women with each other, and to jobs.
Now, it's Ello Hart who is in need of help. After "arriving on a Saturday and starting work on a Monday" from the Ivory Coast nearly eight years ago, she's been working since. She has a master's degree, speaks seven languages and once worked for the United Nations.
And now, like many highly educated men and women -- she's of work.
Ello Hart, who was recently denied unemployment despite having evidence that she is eligible, is one of thousands of workers now without public assistance, and without much hope of finding employment soon.
"Not having a job is killing me," she told The Skanner News. "I can't even tell my own mother I'm not working."
The recession has affected wide swaths of the population. But the long lasting downturn is affecting more than construction, retail and industrial jobs. Thousands with education and a previously middle class lifestyle are now relying on a government system.
'It's Tough Out There'
At the end of 2009, a large number of unemployment claims had been submitted – 271,756 to be exact. Of those claims, 86,629 were denied. About 25,000 people challenged those denials; only 6,000 won.
Unemployment in Oregon is affecting a large swath of the population not traditionally hit by layoffs and downsizing. While traditional blue collar jobs – construction, manufacturing and retail – have been hit hardest, those in business management, finance and other sectors typically associated with higher education are now standing in line for benefits. More males are in the unemployment line than females; and 25 to 54-year-olds are much more likely to be unemployed than any other age group, although the 25 to 34-year-old group contains the most claims.
These claims represent only a portion of people who have experienced job loss. Many unemployed people are not eligible for unemployment benefits or have simply exhausted their allotment, despite congressional extensions.
For these people, the road to homelessness can be a relatively short one, as cash benefits –that which can pay rent -- are difficult to obtain.
The government is relatively quick to award food assistance. People or families at 185 percent of the federal poverty line qualify. For families of four, that is less than $40,793 annually or $26,955 for a couple. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – or SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps – is also eager to find those eligible for benefits. The program's administrators even won a federal award last year for doing just that. With nearly 700,000 Oregonians receiving benefits last year, the $2 million bonuses that accompany those awards are a welcome budget boost.
But getting help making rent or keeping the lights on can be another story. Welfare, now known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), is available for only a fraction of the families who are eligible for SNAP. For instance, as of February 2010, there were 689,128 individuals receiving food benefits in Oregon and only 26,494 receiving TANF benefits.
Food Vs. Security
According to Xochitl Esparza, director of TANF, the recession has proven a difficult challenge for the program's budget. Two months after the program began in December 2007, Esparza says they already had a caseload of 17,557, already exceeding the expected 15,000 to 17,000 they expected when the program began.
"The intent is to move people (from TANF) to employment," she says. "With the economy doing what it's doing, it's overwhelmed the ability of the intended program level."
Vic Todd, administrator of the office of self sufficiency programs, said many people not eligible for unemployment benefits – freelancers, contractual employees and others – have nowhere else to turn but TANF and SNAP. The problem is, you have to be practically destitute to qualify, Todd said.
Draining the IRA
With a young daughter, a husband who has been unable to find work for several years and herself out of work for months, even Ello Hart doesn't qualify to receive the roughly $400 in TANF benefits that would help her get by.
A small IRA retirement account – one that carries a steep tax penalty if there is a withdrawal before the age of 59 and a half -- disqualifies her from the benefits.
In order to make rent, Ello Hart did what she's told countless other African women to do – she sought assistance from Africa House at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.
"One of the women at IRCO was a woman I helped," she said.
She's also been able to acquire a temporary, part-time job at a parking lot directing cars. Although
"I'm trying to live one day at a time," she said. "I can't afford to think about it (upcoming bills/deadlines)."
Ello Hart's major problems with the unemployment office came when she travelled to Europe to both seek employment and obtain college transcripts from her university in Rome. She had a close friend purchase the ticket for her and made contacts with a number of former colleagues that she worked with at the United Nations. She looked for employment online everyday and even made several contacts with employers in Oregon.
But according to Administrative Law Judge Matthew C. Wymer, this wasn't good enough.
"Claimant failed to show that she did what an ordinary and reasonable person seeking to return to work at the earliest opportunity would have done to find work," Wymer wrote in his denial of claims. "Claimant did not actively seek work outside her normal labor market area …"
But Ello Hart denies the subjective claim that she wasn't actively seeking work. She was never informed she needed to make a minimum number of job contacts, and, the laws governing the term "actively seeking work" are not quantifiable.
"There is no specific number of work search contacts a person must make each week," according to a supervisor in the Unemployment Insurance Division. "If we review a person's work search record and determine the number of contacts is inadequate, we can put the person on notice as to a number for future weeks."
Ello Hart was never informed during that time she was making an inadequate number of work contacts. She also questions whether she's being judged that same as an "ordinary" Oregonian. As someone who was born in the Ivory Coast, has worked in several different countries and speaks seven languages, she considers the world open territory for employment.
"I didn't go to Europe because I wanted to have fun," she said. "I wanted to better the condition of my life and family."
There is a subjective assumption built into Oregon law about an "out of area" job search.
"This presumption may be overcome if the individual establishes to the satisfaction of the director that the individual has conducted a bona fide search for work and has been reasonably accessible to suitable work in the labor market area in which the individual spent the major portion of the week to which the presumption applies," according to Oregon statutes.
Ello Hart says she could have returned to Oregon on a relatively short time table if there had been a job offer.
"It's not like I was stuck there," she said.
When she was initially contacted by an investigator from the Employment Department, the investigator was ignorant about what it took to obtain employment in a country such as France, where Ello Hart made inquiries with several former colleagues. The investigator inquired whether she has a visa to work in the country, despite that work visas are only obtained after an employer extends an offer of employment. It is also not listed as a criteria in Oregon unemployment law (OAR 471-030-0078).
Wymer also criticized Ello Hart for failing to keep detailed dates of her employment contacts. Much of the job searching that she conducted, she says, included hours of looking, with few contacts made. With a tight job market, she says very few positions fit her qualifications. Reading down the list of mandatory qualifications, she'd often find one or more computer programs, specializations, or degrees that she didn't have, so she didn't bother taking the time to write a letter of inquiry or send a resume.
"I wish I could give them my computer and have a technician look at all the job postings I searched," she said.
Ello Hart says she is mounting her final appeal to the judge's decision. If she doesn't win, she will have to pay back the money she received as well as a 15 percent penalty.
"This penalty is intended to be a deterrent to the commission of fraud to obtain benefits," The Unemployment Insurance Division told The Skanner News. "Claimants who are overpaid due to a simple oversight or mistake do not have a 15 percent penalty on the overpayment amount."
Looking at this definition through the lens of Ello Hart's ordeal, because she didn't seek enough work, according to the judge, she is being treated the same as someone who sought no work at all. She is also ineligible for benefits for 28 "penalty" weeks and could lose food stamp benefits and any TANF benefits.
It also begs the question: due to budget constraints, are state unemployment investigators and judges under pressure to find technical reasons to deny otherwise valid unemployment claims?
"Absolutely not," said a supervisor with Unemployment. "We look at each case with the mandate of 'paying benefits when due to individuals out of work through no fault of their own.' The same amount of work goes into a decision to allow benefits as to deny. We do not save time or resources by denying benefits. The Employment Department has nothing to gain by withholding unemployment benefits from someone that is eligible to receive them."
State Sen. Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, said federal auditors have increased scrutiny on state programs.
"There is no doubt pressure from the feds to audit clients to make sure they are eligible," she said. "I've heard the feds are looking for evidence that it's strictly policed."
On the other hand, there are no agencies to make sure the unemployment division isn't policing its client list too strictly. If you are accused of not being eligible for benefits, you must provide your own lawyer, as there is only one public benefits lawyer – similar to a public defender -- in the Portland Metro region that can assist in such cases. The nonprofit Legal Aid Services provide lawyers for non-criminal cases.
Woe Be Unto the Middle Class
Rosenbaum says the current recession is hitting the middle class especially hard. She says there is a need to give these people vocational training opportunities.
"We need to fine tune it to specifically address people in white collar jobs," she told The Skanner News.
But with large numbers of people in a wide range of specialties, is it prudent for someone with a set career path to try to sidestep into a new career in the middle of one of the deepest recessions in a generation?
"People should be ready to take advantage of opportunities when the recovery does start," Rosenbaum said.
Rosenbaum said the state has seen some success in providing small business assistance to keep otherwise unemployed persons on payroll, but "employers are maxed out. They're taking more out than they're paying in."
The job training situation is also boosted by federal bloc grant funding for TANF. Not all money in the program goes directly to needy families. Some of the money is used for the jobs program, says Todd. Like unemployment benefits, the Oregon Legislature has financially supported the growing numbers of people on state assistance. But the resources are finite.
"It's a huge problem," says Rosenbaum. "We're approaching a cliff. … That is the crisis that's looming."
There is not another federal unemployment benefits extension and it's not exactly clear if there's enough state money to go around if the recession continues.
Ello Hart is also looking ahead. She's hoping to get into a doctoral program to improve her job prospects down the road.
She also says she's fed up with the current system of public assistance.
"I'll have to create my own unemployment system because I can't rely on the government," she said.