Steven Swanson of Madera lost his job as a beverage salesman about two years ago.
Now the 57-year-old is losing out on emergency long-term unemployment benefits, just like almost 20,000 other residents of the central and southern San Joaquin Valley whose payments will be cut off today by the expiration of the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.
A lifelong Republican, Swanson has lost patience with the party. He’s changed his registration from Republican to independent after GOP leaders in the House of Representatives rebuffed efforts to extend the benefits this month.
The EUC benefits were put in place in 2008 to help the recession’s long-term jobless after they exhausted state unemployment insurance benefits. California’s unemployment program pays a maximum of $450 a week for up to six months. For Swanson and others, the federally funded extensions have been a much-needed lifeline as they look for work.
Swanson worked for 33 years in wholesale, mostly in beverage sales, before losing his job in 2011. Since then, he estimates that he’s submitted résumés for more than 500 positions, and in the past six months filled out more than 200 job applications — all to no avail.
“I want a job, I want to work,” said Swanson, whose daughter and son-in-law live with him and pay rent to help him keep up the mortgage on the house he owns in the Madera Ranchos area. “The problem is I’m a 57-year-old white guy trying to find another sales position and I’m competing against people who are younger than I am.”
Swanson moved from the Central Coast to Madera about 21/2 years ago to represent his company’s beverage products to restaurants and other commercial food-service customers in the San Joaquin Valley. He bought his house, making mortgage payments that were about one-third of what he had paid for rent on the coast. Six months later, he was laid off as his employer reacted to California’s still-reeling economy. He had worked for the company for 14 years.
“I hadn’t had to interview for a job for years, and everything is different now with the Internet and social media,” Swanson said. “I found myself trying to reinvent the wheel against a lot of other people who are out of work. And a lot of companies are still trying to do with fewer people.”
Swanson’s two-year search for another job has been frustrating and humbling. “You send out so many applications and companies don’t even respond,” he said. “I got a response last week from a company that I sent a résumé to six months ago. I had to go back to my records to even remember what it was I applied for there.”
The problem for Swanson and others is that even as the U.S. economy shows modest signs of recovery, the job market remains tight.
Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that there were 3.9 million unfilled jobs at the end of October. But there were about 10.9 million people unemployed last month, almost three workers for every available job in the U.S. Of those, almost 4 million were estimated to have been out of work for more than six months.
The situation is even more strained in the Valley, where there are 151,700 unemployed residents.
Swanson is at the end of his third benefit extension, “and I had one more left,” he said. “I’m getting nervous because when this extension is over, there’s nothing left.”
Beyond the limited job market and the abrupt benefits cutoff, Swanson said he’s frustrated in his job search as he approaches 60.
“When I fill out applications and they want to know your salary history, there’s no doubt I’ve made good money in the past. … I think some of these companies think, ‘Maybe we can hire someone half his age at half the price.’ ”
What incensed Swanson to the point of changing his political party registration were comments from House Republicans, including Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, whose district includes Mariposa County and the eastern portions of Madera and Fresno counties.
McClintock, who was among 62 Republicans who voted against the Ryan/Miller budget compromise, said he believed extending federal unemployment benefits “is counterproductive and hurts the unemployed” because it “reduces the incentive they have to get into the work force.”
For those who are unemployed, McClintock said, “the only antidote for their nightmare is a job.” He added that there were “myriad social programs to ensure basic sustenance” for the unemployed.
For Swanson, such remarks was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“As a taxpayer, I paid into the system for a lot of years,” he said. “For them to just shut it off and say, ‘These people need to get weaned off and get a job’ — well, yeah, I need to get a job, and I want to get a job. But for them to suggest that I just go get welfare or go get food stamps – that’s why I’m frustrated with the Republican Party. They just don’t get it.”
As much as Swanson said he’s disillusioned by the politics, he’s also grown weary of the job environment in the Valley.
“I’m getting to the point, since I’m not finding anything around here, that I’m looking at other states like North Dakota or Alaska,” he said. “Those are two places; they’re looking for people to work there.”
The unemployment rate in North Dakota was 2.6 percent in November, the lowest rate of any U.S. state, and Alaska’s was estimated at 6.5 percent.
Swanson said he’s considering retraining as well. “I’m looking right now at learning to be a long-haul truck driver,” he said. “That’s an industry that needs warm bodies big time.”