More white-collar workers singing the blues Unemployment soars among professionals

September 16, 1991|By Tom Bowman

As a hard-charging vice president at a commercial real estate company, he thought he had little in common with those forlorn figures lining up for unemployment checks.

Then he was laid off from his $40,000-a-year job and ended up in the same line.

"It was embarrassing to come here and look for a job. I always thought people coming here for unemployment were taking a free ride," said Dennis, 40, who asked that his full name not be used.

That view evaporated faster than his 26 weeks of $215 unemployment checks, which eventually expired, as they have for tens of thousands of other Marylanders.

"There's a lot of people who, through no fault of their own, are in a difficult circumstance," said Dennis, who picked up his last check inAugust with no job prospects in sight. Officially, he is no longer classified as unemployed. "Technically I'm not even a statistic. That's pretty insulting."

His crisp gray suit and dark blue tie belie his troubles. He let his health insurance expire. He sold his collection of railroad memorabilia at flea markets. At times, to save money, he eats at his parents' house. Saddled with a $900 mortgage, he has enough savings to last only to the end of November.

This week Congress, after being thwarted by President Bush, will once more try to offer five-to-20 weeks of additional benefits to unemployed workers like Dennis -- who has plenty of company. The House is expected to take up the measure as early as today.

In July, the number of jobless U.S. workers whose regular unemployment benefits ran out reached 318,000, the highest monthly figure in 40 years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal Washington think tank. Since the beginning of the year, 2 million have exhausted their benefits.

In Maryland, from 35,000 to 40,000 residents used up their unemployment benefits in the past year, more than double the usual number, said Chuck Middlebrooks, assistant secretary of the state Division of Employment and Training. Nearly 53,000 were still collecting benefits the week of Aug. 24, up from 29,000 during the same week last year, he said.

Many of those workers, like Dennis, once held professional and managerial jobs, state officials said.

About 23 percent of workers collecting benefits during the past year have been classified as professional, technical or managerial, compared with about 20 percent last year, Mr. Middlebrooks said.

Other state officials say the number of white-collar workers rival recessions in the early 1970s and 1980s. "You're seeing all types of professional and managerial" workers requesting benefits, said Dennis Yeagle, manager of the state's Division of Employment and Training office in Towson. "That's a real difference. It's scary."

"We were looking at the salaries of those laid off and we're amazed," said Adelaide Coale, supervisor of unemployment insurance and a 35-year veteran of the office, who has seen clients who lost yearly incomes reaching $100,000. Many of the high-salary positions were held by engineers who have lost jobs in the defense industry, she said.

Carlos Rhodes, a bearded 38-year-old steelworker whose benefits expired, said that he also noticed the more well-tailored unemployed. "Then you know it's desperate," said Mr. Rhodes, who has been laid off before.

"They're still looking down their noses at you until reality sets in."

Congress last month pushed through a $5.8 billion measure that would offer extended unemployment benefits. But Mr. Bush, saying that the economy was showing signs of recovery and wary of adding to the budget deficit, declined to declare the economic emergency necessary to trigger up to 20 weeks of benefits forthose who exhausted their regular 26 weeks of assistance.

"I think we are beginning to see this economy move and I think that, of course, is the best answer to jobs," the president said last week.

The White House was also heartened when August unemployment figures remained at 6.8 percent and the overall number of jobs rose by a slight 34,000, with job gains in the manufacturing and services industry, according to the Department of Labor. In Maryland, the unemployment rate was 5.5 percent in July, down from 6.0 percent in June, the last monthly figures available.

But congressional Democrats were not convinced that the economy is rebounding.

"There is still no evidence, conclusive evidence, that the recession is over," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, during a recent hearing on the unemployment situation. "This failure to come to the aid of American families stands in sharp contrast to the president's ability to find emergencies . . . when it was a question of sending humanitarian assistance abroad."

Mr. Sarbanes also noted that there is an $8 billion surplus available in the extended benefits trust fund to handle the additional weeks of assistance.

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