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Unemployment Insurance Provides A Cushion For Those In Pursuit Of The Perfect Job

Paresh Dave |
December 21, 2011 | 12:49 a.m. PST

Editor-In-Chief

Faces of L.A.’s Jobless: A Neon Tommy Special Report >>>

They’ve been collecting unemployment insurance for several months, but neither Ron Roberts Jr. nor Keith Terrell is ready to jump at just any job offer.

“Where you start in a company is important because it takes time to grow,” said Terrell, a 39-year-old San Bernardino resident. “I don't want to step too far down.”

Roberts, a Los Angeles resident (pictured at the top) with experience in banking and job counseling, won’t accept just any job either. “The job needs to have the proper income for me and utilize my strengths, and the employer must be diverse and inclusive and the location matters a lot too,” Roberts said.

Pickiness, both on the part of job-seekers and employers, has been criticized for perpetuating an unemployment rate hovering around 12 percent in Los Angeles County.

For the unemployed, selectiveness comes at a cost. Both Roberts and Terrell dipped into their retirement funds to stay afloat after they lost their jobs. Unemployment insurance simply wasn't enough.

Roberts collects about $350 a week in unemployment benefits, about $50 above the statewide average. His wife and two kids have been supportive through his first five months of unemployment as they do their best to maintain their lifestyle.

Roberts has rounded the bases of the job market. He worked as career adviser to students at the University of Southern California from 2003 to 2007. Then, he became a campus recruiter for Ernst and Young until 2010 before he spent a year helping Union Bank of California make its workforce more diverse. Now, he's stuck on the bench, looking for work.

“We're certainly hoping things improve for everyone,” he said. “I remain cautiously optimistic. I've had a few good hits.”

Terrell, who is single, has been collecting an $1,800 unemployment check for three months. He had led a team of business analysts AT&T that measured efforts of the company to make customers happier. The team wasn't meeting its goals, so AT&T shut it down.

Not prepared to accept a non-managerial position after spending years working up the ladder, Terrell hasn't received offers from any Southern California utility companies. He said he's thinking there might be an opening in another field such as real estate.

He accepted a commission position at an insurance company earlier this month. It's not ideal because he's still leaving paycheck to paycheck. He said he's prepared to work multiple jobs to escape that pain.

“It's slow,” he said of the job search. “It's slower than I wanted. I'm confident something will come by the beginning of the year.”

He dropped his health insurance coverage. A combination of his unemployment benefits and severance pay has helped him make $2,200 mortgage payments. His retirement funds have been depleted.

Terrell was last unemployed five years ago and was re-hired by AT&T within five months.  Roberts was last unemployed a year-and-half ago and found a job within a month.

This time around, both said the economy is slightly worse and that they are being a little more selective after their most recent employment choices didn't last long.

He joined several hundred job-seekers walking from room to room on the fifth floor of the Embassy Suites LAX North at a jobs fair hosted by the NAACP in mid-November.

“The opportunities are not quite as abundant, which is no surprise,” Roberts said. “But it's a personal realization of that now that's unfortunate.”

He's heard all of the talk of job creation packages in legislative chambers from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. But he's not seen any signs of progress because of partisan bickering.

“I would hope they would work together,” he said. “If all them work together, we'll all be better off.”

Among the measures members of Congress must decide is on is the emergency extension of unemployment benefits scheduled to expire Dec. 31.

Both Roberts, Jr. and Terrell say most of the unemployment insurance funds they receive help pay for basic expenses such as utility bills, rent and gas.

But without auditing receipts, it’s hard to know how exactly how they or anyone else spends unemployment benefits, which come from taxes paid by employers and loans from the federal government.

In November, tracking those expenses potentially became possible when  California began issuing all unemployment insurance funds electronically, mostly through Bank of America debit cards. Should the state track debit card expenses?

The Los Angeles Times reported in 2010 that welfare recipients were withdrawing money from ATMs at casinos and strip clubs, prompting the state to ban withdrawals at such places.

One legislator who favors more scrutiny of how the unemployed spent their government money is Republican State Sen. Bob Dutton. He sponsored legislation that would have barred welfare funds from being used to purchase alcohol or tobacco, and would support a law that mandates tracking of how unemployment insurance is spent, his spokesman Larry Venus said.

“Senator Dutton wants to make sure dollars are spent like they should be spent. It’s public dollars. The public has a right to know where it is being spent,” Venus said.

Even aggregated anonymous data could help researchers understand the impact of unemployment insurance on people's lives and the economy.

A spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown would only say that the governor would closely analyze any legislation that came his way.

One problem could be that beneficiaries can opt into a program that directly deposits unemployment insurance funds into bank accounts, making for withdrawals and purchases that cannot be tracked.

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