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Beat the Clock

With jobs few and far between, unemployed Arizonans bemoan the Legislature's failure to act

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John Tsosie is a real, flesh-and-blood person who recently could be found searching for a job at a southside office of the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES).

A recent headline in The New York Times declared, "Somehow, the Unemployed Became Invisible." That may be politically true, but beyond politics, that is not the case in Tucson: There are thousands of local people unwillingly without work—including Tsosie, 36.

On a Friday afternoon, he was using DES computers to try to find work. "I've been looking for employment since day one," Tsosie says about his unwanted situation.

His inability to find a job, even after almost one year of trying, isn't surprising. It's estimated that there are 10 job-seekers for every job opening in Arizona.

Tsosie moved to Tucson two years ago. Employed by a Las Vegas-based firm, he was a heavy-equipment operator on a project. Once the construction was completed, the company left town. Tsosie has had only one month of work since.

"I'm looking for the same kind of work or a regular labor job," Tsosie says. "I have a family to think about. There are four of us and another on the way." He's the family's sole wage earner, he says.

Since the economic highs of 2006, half of Pima County's almost 30,000 construction jobs have disappeared. Thus, Tsosie's chances of finding similar employment appear slim.

That skepticism is confirmed when he checks one of the websites which list available jobs. It shows nothing in Tsosie's exact field, and only three positions in somewhat-related occupations. One of those is a $9-per-hour laborer job.

Broadening the search to include construction jobs of any type, 36 are listed. However, none appeared to be a good fit for Tsosie, including a finish-blade operator job.

When asked to compare that open job with the skills of a heavy-equipment operator, a spokeswoman for the firm looking to hire responded: "That's like comparing a surgeon with a nurse."

While the lack of jobs isn't good news for Tsosie, there is some relatively good news about unemployment in Pima County. Since reaching a high of 9.8 percent in January 2010, it has been coming down steadily, and in May of this year stood at 7.8 percent.

That figure is far above Tucson's traditional unemployment rate of around 5 percent, but is considerably lower than the current national figure. Whether it's declining because people in Tucson have found jobs, have given up looking, or have simply left town remains uncertain.

Many Pima County residents who have lost their jobs in the last 26 weeks are receiving regular unemployment benefits from the state. For up to 53 weeks after that, according to the DES, approximately 6,900 local people are getting emergency unemployment compensation paid for by the federal government.

One of those now on emergency unemployment compensation is Tsosie. He receives $240 per week, minus withholdings, and has about 12 weeks of payments remaining. What happens when those payments run out?

"I don't know," Tsosie says about a possible future without a job and without unemployment benefits. "I still need to pay our bills while looking for work at the same time."

Once the emergency unemployment compensation runs out, the federal government can provide another 20 weeks of extended unemployment benefits—but in Arizona, that isn't happening.

Almost 4,600 Pima County residents have been cut off from these extended unemployment benefits, because the Arizona Legislature failed to act recently to make Arizonans eligible. Thousands more, including Tsosie, will be impacted by the end of the year because of the Legislature's decision to do nothing.

When told about the Legislature's refusal to make a simple change to permit the payment of these extended unemployment benefits, Tsosie commented: "They don't think about (the unemployed). They have it nice in their air-conditioned offices, and they don't think about the little people."

Two Tucson Republican state senators, Frank Antenori and Al Melvin, were among the lawmakers who didn't support making the 20 weeks of extended benefits available. Both were contacted via e-mail and asked to comment; neither responded.

More and more Pima County residents, including Tsosie, may run out of unemployment in the months ahead.

One DES representative explains: "When people have been receiving unemployment benefits for 79 weeks, they've done the easy and hard things (to cut expenses). They've burned through their savings and hit up relatives for money. That unemployment check could be the difference between paying the rent and being homeless."

At a midtown DES office, 68-year-old Doug Crabtree, from Amado, was looking through a binder of available jobs. After being employed for 13 years by one firm, the heavy-equipment hauler was out of work at the end of 2010 when the company closed.

"It's difficult to get anything," Crabtree says about the local job situation. "I haven't checked minimum-wage or part-time places (in Tucson), because that won't work with gas prices."

Facing a possible future cutoff of his unemployment benefits, Crabtree says: "I don't know what I'll do. I (guess) I'll continue to do what I'm doing now."

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