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Jewish Agencies Working Overtime For Newly Jobless

Victor Plotkin can’t remember a time when it was so difficult for him to find a job — not when he first came to the United States from Russia, and not when he switched fields from mining to technology.

The 59-year-old resident of Castro Valley, Calif., a suburb of Oakland, has been out of work for 13 months, ever since being laid off by the telecommunications and Internet company where he had earned $85,000 a year as a software quality-assurance engineer. During the Internet boom, he said, when he was looking for work, two interviews would lead to one job offer. Now it’s hard just to get an interview.

More than 1.8 million Americans have been unemployed for more than six months, according to federal government statistics, putting long-term unemployment at its highest level in 10 years. And the outlook for the jobless nationwide continues to be bleak.

Among the hardest hit are middle-aged and older professionals, who frequently have substantial financial responsibilities, yet often have particular difficulty finding new jobs after being laid off, say Jewish communal professionals who aid the unemployed.

“I expected that it would be difficult, but I never expected what I was told by hiring managers, that sometimes they would receive 1,000 resumes for one opening,” Plotkin said.

Last Friday the Labor Department released a report showing a loss of 101,000 jobs in December. That comes on top of a reported loss of 88,000 jobs the previous month. The unemployment rate currently stands at 6% — an eight-year high.

Jewish communal professionals across the country say the current economic crunch is having a real impact on the middle and upper-middle classes. Jewish agencies have seen demand for their vocational services as much as double since the downturn began.

“One of the major crises in the Jewish community right now is the severe unemployment,” said Gail Magaliff, chief operating officer for human services at FEGS: Health and Human Services System, an agency of the UJA-Federation of New York.

Many of those seeking help recently earned six-figure salaries, professionals say, and many are people who have never before been unemployed, and now find themselves out of a job for more than a year.

Dan Halpren, 56, of Millburn, N.J., has been unemployed since he was laid off 11 months ago by South African Tourism, where he had served as vice president for finance administration. He said that after much searching he has a job prospect on the horizon. But if that falls through, he said, he will go into business for himself rather than continue searching for employment.

“There’s so many people out there looking for positions, and companies are hiring less. Where are you going to go work?” he asked. When one is self-employed, he said, “You don’t have to worry about getting laid off.”

Two days before the national unemployment statistics were released last week, President Bush signed into law a bill that extended through May the “Temporary Extended Unemployment Compensation” program. It allows unemployed people to receive an additional 13 weeks of unemployment payments after exhausting the standard 26 weeks of benefits. The initial program had expired December 28.

As a result of the extension, an estimated 800,000 people who had already started receiving payments under the program before it expired will be able to continue receiving benefits for the full 13-week period. Another cohort of unemployed, estimated to number 1.5 million people, will be able to begin receiving the 13 weeks of extended benefits when their standard 26 weeks of benefits run out.

“For our clients who solely survive on their unemployment benefits [the extension is] absolutely critical because it means the difference between some income and no income,” said Vivian Seigel, chief executive officer of Jewish Vocational Service of Los Angeles. “For our higher-end clients, it quite often can make the difference between making a mortgage payment.”

Congressional Democrats charge that last week’s unemployment package doesn’t go far enough, particularly in assisting those who have already used up all 39 weeks of unemployment benefits and are therefore not helped by the extension. Indeed, Seigel and others who work for Jewish vocational agencies say that the current economy — in which it frequently takes a year or more for unemployed people to find jobs — calls for a 26-week extension of benefits.

Plotkin, the California software engineer, said he used up all 39 weeks of his unemployment benefits four months ago. The unemployment checks of $330 per week had been making a “big difference” for him, he said. He said he was disappointed that the unemployment package signed last week did not go further.

“When I was having unemployment benefits it was still very tough because it’s just a very small fraction of what I was making as a software engineer,” he said, “but still it was a big help.”

Plotkin said that while he is lucky that his wife has a good job, his family has nevertheless faced “a huge lifestyle change” as a result of his unemployment. Now, he said, his family buys “only very basic things.” Gone are the perks of upper middle-class life. No more vacations, dining out or concert tickets. He said he has also had to refinance his house.

But the effects of long-term unemployment are not only financial. “Psychologically it’s really difficult and unpleasant,” Plotkin said. “It’s depressing; one begins to feel worthless.”

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