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"How Am I Going to Survive?" 

Some area jobless running out of options

click to enlarge "I have to believe theres more to come." -- Rocky - Scott, director of the Economic Development - Corporation, fearing the wave of local layoffs may not - have crested yet
  • "I have to believe theres more to come." -- Rocky Scott, director of the Economic Development Corporation, fearing the wave of local layoffs may not have crested yet

More than nine months after getting laid off from his high-tech job, Paul Bentayou still can't find work.

Last month, he ran out of his eligibility for unemployment benefits, having exhausted both the standard 26-week eligibility period and a 13-week extension approved by the U.S. Congress as an emergency measure last winter.

A Colorado Springs telecommunications engineer who specializes in designing telephone-cable and fiber-optics systems, Bentayou says there's been zero demand for his skills in the wake of the recent telecom bust.

"There's just no work anywhere in the country," he complained. "I'm doing everything I can to get work, but there is no work."

Retraining for another career isn't much of an option, Bentayou says. "I'm 62 years old -- where the hell am I going to get work out of my field?"

Just sitting there

Bentayou is among many local jobless who have begun dropping off the unemployment rolls in the last couple of months, not because they've found jobs, but because they've run out of eligibility for benefits.

In response to the nation's increased unemployment rate, Congress last winter passed a 13-week benefits extension, adding to the standard 26-week eligibility period at the state level. The extension went into effect March 15.

Thirteen weeks later -- in mid-June -- case managers at the Pikes Peak Workforce Center began to see clients coming in who had exhausted both the standard period and the extension and still didn't have jobs, says Randy Samuels, a training coordinator for the center, which provides services to the unemployed.

While the Workforce Center can provide job counseling and resources, there's nothing the jobless can do to earn additional benefits at that point. As a result, by the end of the 13 weeks, "quite a few" people have simply moved elsewhere to try to find jobs, Samuels says.

Meanwhile, a $143 million appropriation from Congress, given to the state of Colorado for unemployment programs, is sitting untouched in state coffers after the Colorado Legislature -- which is now in recess until next year -- failed last session to devise a plan for how to spend it.

The magic 4 percent

When passing part of the legislation last winter, Congress did include provisions for a second 13-week extension of jobless benefits, but only for states that reach unusually high levels of unemployment. To qualify for the second extension, 4 percent of a state's workforce must be receiving unemployment benefits.

While Colorado's unemployment rate has exceeded 5 percent much of this year, the proportion of the workforce actually receiving benefits peaked at just 2.2 percent in March, and is now at 1.8 percent, according to Don Peiterson, director of the state's unemployment insurance program.

Consequently, Colorado hasn't qualified for the second 13-week extension.

Moreover, the first 13-week extension won't be helping people for much longer -- the temporary measure expires Dec. 28, Peiterson says.

That could be bad news for many in El Paso County, where a wave of high-tech layoffs has yet to subside.

While the statewide unemployment was most recently reported at 5 percent, the county's rate was 6.2 percent. Peiterson attributes the higher rate to the prominent role of high-tech companies in the area's economy.

Local employers laid off more than 1,800 employees in the first seven months of this year, according to estimates by the Greater Colorado Springs Economic Development Corporation. The bulk of those layoffs came from information technology and telecommunications companies. WorldCom led the way with an estimated 500 layoffs, followed by the Gateway Corp., which eliminated an estimated 400 jobs.

Pool of money

The unemployment rate has become an issue in Colorado's gubernatorial campaign, with Democratic challenger Rollie Heath and his running mate -- former state Sen. Bill Thiebaut, who is running for lieutenant governor -- criticizing incumbent Republican Gov. Bill Owens for not doing enough to help the jobless.

Last spring, during his final term as a state senator from Pueblo, Thiebaut introduced legislation to make use of a one-time, $143-million appropriation from Congress, made available to the state for the purpose of bolstering unemployment programs.

"Essentially, what the bill would do was expand the pool of people who qualify" for jobless benefits, Thiebaut said. "We were trying to even extend the benefits beyond the 13-week extension" approved by Congress.

The bill passed the Senate but was killed by the Business and Labor Affairs Committee of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Thiebaut blames Owens for the defeat, saying the governor should have supported the bill and lobbied his fellow Republicans for its passage.

"I had absolutely no help whatsoever from the governor's office," Thiebaut complained. Now, the $143 million "just sits, as far as I can tell."

Peiterson, the state's unemployment benefits director, confirmed that no plans have been made for how to use the funds. Any decision would have to be made by the state Legislature, which won't meet again until January.

A spokesman for Owens, Dan Hopkins, says the governor didn't take an official position on the bill. However, Hopkins points out that officials in the State Budget Office, as well as the Department of Labor and Employment, were concerned about the legislation because of its future fiscal implications.

Thiebaut's bill would have spent the entire $143 million in one year while expanding benefits programs in perpetuity -- leaving the programs without funding in future years, Hopkins argues.

"He was proposing a $140-million expansion of benefits that would really only be funded one time," Hopkins said.

Though it's not being used right now, the money is nonetheless benefiting the people of Colorado by boosting the state's unemployment trust fund, where it sits temporarily, argues Mike McArdle, policy director of the Labor Department. Without that boost, the trust fund would have dipped below a "trigger" level where employers have to pay increased contributions into the fund, in order to keep it solvent, he says.

"It keeps costs down for employers," who in turn might afford to hire back new workers, McArdle said.

More to come

Meanwhile, Colorado's employment picture is looking a little brighter statewide, Peiterson reports. In November 2001 through February 2002, the number of new claims for unemployment benefits averaged about 4,500 per week. In the last two months, it has averaged approximately 2,500 per week.

"It's dropped off tremendously," Peiterson observed. "We're starting to get some more employment out there."

While corresponding figures were not available for El Paso County, some fear the county's immediate future may not be quite as bright.

Rocky Scott, director of the Economic Development Corporation, says he fears the wave of local layoffs may not have crested yet.

"I have to believe there's more to come," Scott says.

Bentayou, meanwhile, is incredulous that the state government is sitting on unemployment funds while people like himself have nowhere to turn.

"Why are they doing this to the unemployed people in Colorado?" Bentayou wonders. "How am I going to survive?"

___________________________

The Big Dippers

Largest recent layoffs in the Colorado Springs area (January through July, 2002):

Company & the number of people laid off

WorldCom: 500
Gateway: 400
EDS (Electronic Data Systems): 200
RockShox Inc.: 200
SCI Systems: 120
Current Inc.: 110

SOURCE: Greater Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp. (some figures are estimates)

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