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Jobs Numbers Better Than Expected

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Thirty-six thousand, that's how many jobs the economy lost last month/ Painful, yes, but still the number was better than economists had expected. And the Labor Department said the unemployment rate held steady at 9.7 percent. But for the long term, unemployed better times still seem far away. Many don't even qualify for jobless benefits. And those who do often exhaust their government support before they can find a job.

As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, this recession is testing the limits of the 75-year-old unemployment insurance system.

YUKI NOGUCHI: In late 2007, for the first time in her life, Kim Richardson(ph) found herself without work, without savings and without income.

Ms. KIM RICHARDSON: I have worked full time even while I was going to college since the age of 16, I am now 43.

NOGUCHI: So, the Missoula, Montana, single mom expected to receive unemployment benefits when her business partnership went sour.

Ms. RICHARDSON: I felt - and I hate to say this - but I felt I deserved it, I paid into that for years. And I felt like it's okay for this short time to be able to use this.

NOGUCHI: But Richardson was told she didn't qualify because of the way she and her partner incorporated their clothing business. She says she nearly lost her home, visited a food bank for the first time and is now cleaning homes and living a pared down life. A large percentage of today's workforce wouldn't qualify for benefits either. Temps, most part-time workers and self-employed people can't collect on unemployment insurance nor can those recently on maternity or other forms of leave. Those who choose to leave or were dismissed or fired from their jobs are also disqualified. Figures vary, but according to the National Employment Law Project only 42 percent of the currently unemployed are eligible.

Mr. HOWARD ROSEN: We like to think about unemployment insurance as some generous thing that we're doing to help the unemployed. But in fact that is not why we created the system in the first place.

NOGUCHI: That's Howard Rosen, he's a fellow who studies labor at the Peterson Institute think tank. The intent, he says, was to keep money in people's pockets so they in turn could spend the money and keep the economy going, a temporary bridge to the next job. But the jobs picture her today is different than it was in 1935. Even in good times the economy destroys jobs almost as aggressively as it creates them. And that means jobseekers need more training than ever to acquire new skills for new kinds of work. Rosen says the government should therefore provide more time and more money for re-training.

Mr. ROSEN: The current recession and the slow recovery in the labor market is actually pointing out some real serious weaknesses in our employment insurance system.

NOGUCHI: James Shirk(ph) is a senior analyst at the Heritage Foundation. He says the jobless benefit system isn't working but says it's because it's too generous. With the maximum number of extensions, workers in some states can collect nearly two years of benefits and that's not helpful he says.

Mr. JAMES SHIRK (Senior Analyst, Heritage Foundation): The jobs that have been lost are not coming back and workers need to change the new industries, move to new sectors of the country. And having two years of UI benefits allows those who are unemployed to sort of - to put off making those very difficult and very painful decisions, to keep imagining that the jobs that they used to have will come back.

NOGUCHI: Sam Litman(ph) says he realizes he'll have to move from his small town in Nevada and switch careers to find his next job. He was fired from a Walmart in Elko, Nevada, for alleged misuse of company time two years ago. He didn't qualify for jobless benefits, so he's relying on his wife's income and hoping to graduate from college in a year.

Mr. SAM LITMAN: I'm hoping I'll be okay by that time, especially if we're back in Las Vegas it will be much easier to get a job there than it would be up here.

NOGUCHI: Nevada's unemployment rate is 13 percent, but Litman says he's optimistic about his future odds.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.