Until he lost his job, Jim MacPherson figures, he had worked every day of his life since he was 15. Now, after 18 months of desperately seeking new work, MacPherson is among the estimated 2.1 million US workers, including 30,000 in Massachusetts, who have been without jobless benefits since Congress allowed an extension of the federal program to expire in early June.
This week, with unemployment still at its highest level in more than a quarter-century and hiring down to a crawl, the US Senate will try again to break a stalemate over extending through Nov. 30 the emergency benefits that allowed unemployed workers to collect for up to 99 weeks. The legislation has become tied up in deficit politics, with Republicans, including Senator Scott Brown, insisting that the $33 billion cost of the extension not be added to the nation's burgeoning debt. Brown has proposed legislation that he says would pay for the benefits with unspent stimulus funds.
Some Republicans and economists have even argued that the time has come to end the extensions, which they say is providing incentives to turn down work.
"If the goal is to get people back to work, why tie the money to the condition that you stay unemployed?'' said David Tuerck, executive director of the conservative Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University.
But other economists say hiring remains so weak and unemployment so high that extensions will provide much-needed support for the economy.
"The vast majority of unemployed are hard-pressed to find a job, and the risks of not passing the extensions are too great,'' said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pa. "It could reignite the foreclosure crisis, and if the economy swamps again, there is no response.''
In the meantime, those who have lost benefits are clinging to the hope that they'll find new jobs while wondering how they'll pay mortgages, keep food on the table, or send children to college. Here are some of their stories.
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The desire to work was never a problem for Jim MacPherson. He spent 28 years at the same construction equipment rental company, putting in 10- to 12-hour days. When the firm laid him off at the end of 2008, he had 29 unused personal days.
But MacPherson, 51, of Holbrook, has found that desire is not enough. He has sent out scores of resumes; networked with colleagues, friends, and friends of friends; and tried to transfer his purchasing and inventory management skills to other industries. Recently, he thought he might get an offer from a local hospital - until administrators imposed a hiring freeze.
MacPherson also thought he would get another extension to his unemployment benefits, which ran out two weeks ago. "It's not a matter of giving people money,'' he said. "It's giving us more time, because the jobs are not there.''
For MacPherson, whose wife works on a per diem basis at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, the loss of benefits is making a tough situation tougher. The father of three, MacPherson drained his savings to cover health insurance costs, particularly important because his 13-year-old daughter has diabetes.
Already, MacPherson said, he and his family are doing all they can to make ends meet. When MacPherson takes his daughter to Children's Hospital in Boston for diabetes treatments, he donates platelets to get free parking and save $15. He has even participated in four nutritional studies at Tufts University, earning $500 for each.
Soon, he said, he'll have to tap into his retirement account to pay the mortgage. Meanwhile, his oldest daughter, 17, is increasingly stressed about the cost of college. MacPherson keeps trying to assure her that he'll find a way.
"The unemployment checks meant I could pay my mortgage and keep food on the table,'' he said. "Right now, I am just trying to keep a positive outlook that tomorrow will bring that phone call.''
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After she was laid off from her job of 16 years, the easiest thing for Karen Bureau of Methuen would have been just to stay home. Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at 12, and dependent on a motorized wheelchair and home health aides, it takes her up to three hours to wash, dress, and get ready to leave the house.
But during 15 months of unemployment, Bureau, who was assistant director of a Lawrence nonprofit, has not been content to stay at home. Day in and day out, she clambers into her modified minivan, aided by a chair lift, and heads to interviews, the local career center, or volunteer work, which she does in part to build connections that might lead to a job.
"It takes a lot of energy,'' said Bureau, 42. "But I didn't come this far to be unemployed.''
Despite her efforts, Bureau is still without a job, and has been without her unemployment benefits of $554 a week since the end of June. Unless a job comes through soon - she's in the running for a position at a local social service agency - or Congress approves the benefit extensions, she could lose her house, a ranch-style home that she renovated to make it accessible.
"Unemployment benefits have been my lifeline,'' said Bureau, who lives alone. "It's becoming a question of whether I go into foreclosure or a short sale. It's difficult not knowing what step to take next.''
Bureau, who holds a bachelor's degree and master's level certificate in human services management, had never been out of work before her layoff in the spring of last year. She said she doesn't understand how Congress could take a weeklong recess when so many like her are unsure if they'll be able to keep their homes. In the meantime, she said, she'll keep looking and hoping.
"I'm determined to find something,'' she said. "I want to be out amongst people. I want to be working.''
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Tom Bergendahl has been sending out an average of four resumes a week for two years. A few weeks ago, he seemed close to getting a contract job with a financial services firm, when at the last minute, the company decided to use existing employees. "It vanished right before my eyes,'' he said.
Also gone are the $502-a-week unemployment checks, which he had expected to last, if necessary, through October. As a result, Bergendahl, the father of two teenage sons, is burning through what savings he has left, hoping his job search succeeds before the money runs out.
"The unemployment benefits,'' he said, "were a helping hand in a time of real financial stress.''
Bergendahl lost his contract job with State Street Corp. in the summer of 2008. With a fair amount of savings, and believing he would soon find work, he didn't file for unemployment until March 2009.
Now, with his wife working part time, he has had to take financial help from relatives. His family has cut back where they could. Summer vacation will be a low-cost camping trip without Bergendahl, who will stay home to look for jobs.
"I try to be as upbeat as possible,'' he said. "The economy is going to get better. This can't last forever - I hope.''
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It took 20 years of night school, one class at a time, but in May 2009, Donna Rafferty finally earned the bachelor's degree in human services she thought would advance her career. A month later, she was laid off from the social services agency where she answered a referral line.
Since then, Rafferty has had to lower her sights from the case manager job she hoped her degree would bring. Sending out more than 250 resumes, she has applied for clerical and administrative jobs in a variety of industries, even fast-food restaurants. No luck.
"As time goes on, it gets more discouraging,'' said Rafferty, 58, of Jamaica Plain. "I've had two interviews, and both times came in the top three, but that doesn't make me feel any better.''
Making things worse: her sole income, $420 a week in unemployment benefits, ended last month.
Rafferty, who is single, said she has always lived frugally, aided by the modest mortgage on the condominium she bought in 1998 for $75,000. She figures she has enough savings to get through August. After that, she said, "I'll hit the panic button.''
In the meantime, she is making daily visits to career centers to search job listings, sending out more resumes, and calling "anyone who's given me a business card.'' She's even dropping by companies in the hope of persuading someone to hire her.
"I'm doing everything I can, but there's just not that many jobs out there,'' she said. "I'm trying to understand what Congress is doing. This is not the time to teach government to stop spending when it's working people who need the help.''