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Unemployment benefits to end soon
Unemployed residents are left to wonder when payments will run out, and what to do when it happens
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Melissa Cowan has done the math, and the numbers won’t add up. The former human resources professional has been unemployed since February 2009. She’s received two job offers during that time, but after paying for childcare and gas, she would have netted $15 a week.

She’s received unemployment benefits for 92 of the weeks she’s been unemployed, which have kept her family afloat and allowed her to keep looking for a job that will actually pay the bills. Georgia provides unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks, but the federal government has continually funded benefit extensions that provide unemployment benefits for a maximum of 99 weeks.

Cowan thought she had seven weeks left on her 99 weeks of payments, enough to get through the holidays before the safety net was cut.

But the federal extensions were allowed to expire last week for Cowan and 25,000 other Georgians. Until that funding is renewed, some 84,400 Georgians could see benefits expire by the end of December, according to the Georgia Department of Labor.

As of late Tuesday, Congress appeared to be on the verge of an agreement to fund benefit extensions for 13 months, but no legislation had been passed.

For Cowan, those seven weeks of remaining eligibility could make a big difference.

"I was planning to take a little unemployment money out of each check to pay for gifts. Yes, even with an extension, I only had seven or eight weeks left, but at least (I would have some money) before Christmas," said Cowan. "A 3 and 6-year-old don’t understand. I don’t want them to look back and be disappointed; I don’t want them to think ‘Mommy doesn’t care about me.’"

When The Covington News created a Facebook post on Monday seeking comments on unemployment benefits, a debate raged over whether the benefits should be extended. Some called the benefits a crutch, while others called them a lifesaver and economic booster.

"I've been unemployed before, but I didn’t sit home crying about it while expecting the government (taxpayers) to pay my bills. I didn’t stop beating down doors until I got lucky. Until that point I had to lower my standards until it came," business owner Brandon Marshall wrote.

Cowan said she’s applied to several jobs each week, but most owners are turned off by her $50,000 salary history, which makes it likely she’d take a better paying job as soon as it was offered. She admits that even a $35,000 salary wouldn’t supplement her husband’s income enough to pay for daycare, which she estimates at around $300 a week, in addition to rent, utilities and insurance.

To date, it’s been more advantageous for Cowan to take part-time work, like being an extra on "Vampire Diaries" and the AMC series "The Walking Dead," including a prominent role in the series pilot. She’s occasionally earned enough to negate an unemployment payment, but the work isn’t steady. When the benefits finally do run out, she’ll probably look for a minimum-wage nightshift job, so she can watch the kids during the day and her husband can watch them at night. It’ll add stress, but the couple is already behind on payments as it is.

The Georgia Department of Labor doesn’t track county data for extended benefits, but during the week of Nov. 22, 124,817 Georgians received federal benefit money, according to labor spokesman John Ard.

Newton County residents have received $12.14 million through November through the state’s 26-week regular benefit. Payment numbers have been on the decline, which could be attributed to workers either exhausting their state benefits or getting jobs.

Newton’s unemployment rate has also been dropping, according to U.S. Dept. of Labor, but the employment numbers haven’t been significantly increasing. The January 2010 unemployment rate was 13.3 percent, and 40,380 local residents were employed. The preliminary October rate is 11.4 percent, but the county only added 124 jobs. However, it lost 748 unemployed workers, likely because those workers have stopped looking for work, and, therefore, are no longer counted as part of the workforce.

Ard said the average unemployed Georgian collects $260 for an average of 15 weeks.

Shirley Smith, CEO of Repairers of the Breach thrift store, said she believes things are getting worse.

"What are we going to do? I mean that, what are we going to do? People are calling for shelter. We take (a couple of) families and put them in help, but the only other thing we got is the homeless shelter out here," she said and breathed a deep sigh. "It is worse. We could have taken 1,000 applications for Christmas, but we had a cutoff point because we could take no more… When is it going to let up?"

Smith said it’s even worse for self-employed contractors who aren’t eligible to receive unemployment, but every day she’s seeing more people coming to a thrift store for the first time, reluctantly asking for a helping hand.

"I’m seeing those people. They’ve never had to ask for help before. They’re not at the bottom yet, but they’re just barely providing food for their families," she said.