A life-long hard worker, Scott Pompa now lies awake at night, worrying about how he'll be able to support his wife and two young children.
The Jim Thorpe man was laid off from his management-level job when his company downsized in Sept. 2010, and despite his best efforts, has yet to find another full-time job that pays enough to make a living.
"Unemployment is a pretty damn depressing thing. If I can't support my family, what am I going to do?" he says.
Pompa, 50, isn't alone.
As of December, 3,200 – a staggering 10.4 percent – of Carbon County residents were out of work, according to the latest figures from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. The county ranks third highest in the unemployment rate, significantly above the state rate of 7.6 percent.
Nationally, the jobless rate as of Friday dropped to 8.3 percent, the lowest number in about three years.
The situation may become worse if state lawmakers fail to amend unemployment compensation laws by week's end in order to continue to extend benefits to some 17,000 people.
"The United States Congress passed the extension, giving the states the ability to amend their unemployment compensation laws, if necessary, to continue participating in the federal program. If we (Pennsylvania) don't change our UC law to take advantage of the extension, then the program will end on Feb. 4," says state Department of Labor and Industry spokesman Christopher Manlove.
"To participate, states have to have an unemployment rate over a certain level during a certain period of time. As Pennsylvania's unemployment rate has dropped, the rate to participate fell too low during the set period of time. So, what we'd need to do is change our law so the beginning date is pushed farther into the past, when the unemployment rate was higher, so that the average rate over time is higher," he says.
Pompa collected unemployment benefits for 14 months before his benefits ran out. He's landed a part-time job at a local home improvement center, but the $10 an hour he earns isn't enough to make ends meet, even though his wife works full-time. Like many in the coal region, Pompa has worked hard all his life, beginning with a newspaper route at 14.
He and his wife planned well. They waited until they were established in careers and had built their home before starting their family. Both worked in fields they trusted to be secure.
Until the economy tanked in 2008.
"The last time I worked for $10 an hour was in the early 1980s. I can't support a home and o children on $10 an hour job. There's got to be some jobs coming to Carbon County at some point," Pompa says. "I know I'm not in it alone, but I never thought I would be sitting here, 14 months later, still unemployed."
Gary Wentz, Administrator of Carbon County Workforce Training at CareerLink in Jim Thorpe, understands Pompa's fear and frustration.
Unemployment compensation checks max out at about $500 a week, he says. The average check amounts to about two-thirds of a person's net income.
"For people who were in good-paying positions, or professional positions, that doesn't even come close," Wentz says. "There are some real significant drop-offs."
Job seeking has changed
For the unemployed, coping with the drop in income is only part of the problem. Job-seeking isn't what it once was.
There was a time when a person looking for work could walk in the front door of a company and ask for a job. Now, most companies only accept applications online.
Wentz says it typically takes two or three months of searching and filling out applications before job-seekers starts getting responses. Also, there have been big changes in how employers recruit people, he says.
The staff at CareerLink coach people in how to seek and apply for jobs online because growing numbers of employers will accept applications only through their websites, Wentz says.
Pompa has submitted about 130 job applications.
"I got one phone call, that came from Lowe's," he says. He gratefully accepted the company's offer of a part-time job.
Online applications make it harder for job-seekers to make their cases, he believes.
"You don't get an opportunity to sell yourself. You can't engage someone in conversation – the personal side of the whole thing is missing," he says.
He's further frustrated with the lack of feedback from prospective employers.
"Everything is done online, and you don't get a response," Pompa says.
"Don't get frustrated," Wentz says.
He frequently hears complaints from job-seekers who fill out applications, but never receive a response.
"In the past, you used to get at least a letter or a response. But now, it's a buyer's market for employers," he says. "They get a lot of applications. They take a lot of resumes, so they are just not in a position where they really do not respond to every application. From a job-seeker's standpoint, that's very frustrating. They don't know whether they are being considered or not. But don't take a rejection personally. The only thing you can do is to keep at it. There are people being hired."
Many people are finding jobs through staffing agencies. While not optimal – typically, the jobs are part-time, short term and don't offer benefits – they can be a "foot in the door," Wentz says.
For now, Pompa remains determined.
"I left KidsPeace with a positive attitude – this would be a new beginning," he says. He accepted that he would "reset himself' to learn new skills and a new job.
"I have drive, commitment and a willingness to learn," he says. "Just give me the opportunity to do it."
The swiftness of the downturn and the length of the recession as the economy plods toward recovery is discouraging, Wentz says. The average length of unemployment used to be about six months. Now, he says, two years – or longer – is not uncommon.
And this time, Wentz is seeing more professionals, with college degrees and higher levels of job skills, searching for jobs. In times past, it was mostly factory or garment mill workers who lost jobs.
Pompa says he doesn't believe the employment situation is improving. The government numbers, he says, do not include those have who given up looking for work, whose unemployment compensation has run out, or those who, like him, are underemployed.
But he's keeping his chin up despite the uncertainty.
"It's just got to get better," he says. "I want to be working. I have to remain optimistic that it's going to work out."