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Some area jobless say benefits don’t impair work search

There are pundits, politicians and policy wonks who suggest that extending unemployment benefits discourages millions of Americans from looking for work.

Some looking for work at the Henderson office of Nevada Job Connect beg to differ.

Three women at the office talked about their unique experiences in dealing with job loss amid the worst economic slide since the Great Depression.

Mapu Mattson and Nadine Balestra are grateful for unemployment benefits. They say the money kept them from abject poverty.

Trisha Hill desperately hopes to qualify for benefits. Without them, her family would be virtually penniless.

EXTENDED BENEFITS: LIFESAVER
OR PART OF THE PROBLEM?

Of the three, only Balestra, 47, has applied for extended benefits.

Critics say paying them actually increases the jobless rate.

Their premise is that people refuse jobs that pay less than they get in unemployment benefits or less than they earned at their previous workplace.

Proponents counter that unemployment rates have been high the past few years because there are no job openings, not because people refuse to work.

In any event, in a region where the average home rents for about $1,200 a month, the maximum benefit of about $1,600 a month hardly puts someone on easy street.

JUST ENOUGH TO STAY AFLOAT

“I get $255 a week” in unemployment benefits, said Balestra, who lost her three-year job as a cashier in a retail outlet nearly six months ago.

Balestra’s initial 26-week state benefit is set to expire, and she doesn’t know whether she’ll get an extension through the federal program despite the latest congressional approval just before Christmas.

She can make her rent through February.

“I’ve got 60 days for something good to happen,” she said.

Balestra left college before she earned a nursing degree. She worked in the medical field as a clerk for years until her mother, Penelope, fell ill in 2001.

For seven years Balestra didn’t work while she cared for her mom. She rejoined the workforce in 2008, after her mother died.

She says the gap in employment history is a knock against her.

Her unemployment check pays for rent but not much else.

“That’s not even close to what I was making as a cashier, so I don’t know why people wouldn’t get a job if they could,” Balestra said.

Divorced with four grown children, Balestra has no family in Southern Nevada. She says her lifeline is her roommate, who splits the rent and pays the heating bill.

For Balestra, the most significant expense is fuel.

“The gas I use looking for work is big,” she said. “I spend a lot of money looking for a job. It’s ridiculous to me that anyone would think an unemployment check would motivate me to not look for work.”

The stress has taken its toll.

“There was no Christmas,” she said. “I can’t sleep.”

The return to college, however, has improved her outlook.

“Going back to school has actually helped my mental health,” she said, and hope still glimmers. “Hospitals are hiring. Medical facilities are hiring.”

LOOKING FOR THE SAFETY NET

While Balestra has been out of work for six months, Hill, 40, has been unemployed for about a month, and she has no idea whether she will qualify for benefits.

A self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades for a Las Vegas firm that manufactures ingredients for artisan pastry chefs, Hill lost her job Nov. 30 after four years.

She was fired, she said, after asking the owner to stop cussing.

“He was a screamer,” she said.

The owner has appealed Hill’s application for benefits. A hearing to sort it out will be scheduled. She said he gave unemployment officials “a laundry list” of infractions that led to her dismissal. She also said there was never so much as a lecture on her performance in four years.

Her husband works part time. They have a 4-year-old son.

“I was the breadwinner, and we’re in a real bad situation,” Hill said. “Our families are starting to help, and we are lucky, very lucky. I know that.”

An emotional Hill won’t let the fear of the unknown rattle her.

“I think we’ll be OK,” she said through tears. “I’m just trying to stay positive.”

Hill has been told that if she does get benefits she will earn about $300 a week.

“That will help, but it won’t be enough,” she said. “Believe me; I am diligently looking for work. I also believe in being positive. What I put out there, I’ll get back.”

A POSITIVE ATTITUDE IS ESSENTIAL

Mattson, 26, can attest Hill’s philosophy is a winning one. She said she stayed positive through tough times that lasted a year and a half — and good things eventually happened.

Mattson and her longtime boyfriend, Kelii Kelly , 28, had a bounce in their steps Thursday morning.

Their big smiles and good moods were in sharp contrast to the overall gloom that pervades the Nevada Job Connect office in Henderson on most days.

And for good reason. Kelly was just hired at a national retail outlet after spending 18 months out of work. He was at Job Connect for help obtaining the work cards necessary to hold a job in many Nevada businesses.

“We were able to make it, but just barely,” said Mattson, who laughs at the notion that extended unemployment benefits allowed her husband to turn down job offers.

“He looked for work ever since he lost his job,” she said. “He always looked for work. He went a little crazy staying home, but we kept him going.”

The couple moved to Henderson from their native Hawaii in 2006. They have a daughter, 6, and a 4-year-old son.

“The kids kept Kelii from getting hopeless,” Mattson said. “Our daughter would say, ‘Dad, don’t give up. You will find something.’ ”

The new job, she said, has restored Kelly’s confidence.

“We’ll be good,” Mattson said. “It won’t be perfect, but we’re stable again.”

Mattson said her faith never wavered, and she credits the family’s good fortune to their belief in a higher power.

“We kept our faith, and God answered,” she said. “And I can tell you we jumped for joy when Kelii was hired.”

The extended benefits he received were enough to cover the basics most months, and for that she is grateful.

“It felt like a huge weight had been lifted off of all our shoulders,” she said.

THE VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE

Melvin Grant has never seen the Nevada economy so bad.

Grant, the manager of the Henderson office of Nevada Job Connect, disagrees with those who believe extending unemployment benefits discourages recipients from aggressively looking for work.

“I’ve never seen it this tough,” he said. “There’s one job opening for every five people in Nevada, and the vast majority of people want to work. They’re smart enough to know unemployment insurance is not retirement.

“It will end.”

Grant said the desire to work is fueled by more than a need to make a living.

His degree led to a career as a counselor in rehabilitation centers for 20 years before he took a job counseling the unemployed in the early 1990s.

It is a history that gives Grant a unique perspective on the human condition under stress.

Job loss means more than a job is lost.

Grant said the first casualties are a sense of self-worth, self-confidence and self-sufficiency.

“Losing a job is traumatic even in good times,” he said. “These are not good times.”

With more people to place than openings to fill, Grant said, his staffers get a real satisfaction when a client finds work.

“When we help a person get a job, not only is that person impacted, but so is that person’s family,” he said. “Their mental stability changes, and the family’s mental health improves as a result.”

Grant and his staff of 22 employees work with about 300 out-of-work Henderson residents every week.

Some of them have collected un­employment insurance checks for months, others for more than a year.

If Balestra, Hill and Mattson reflect the unemployed demographic as a whole, many would prefer a job.

Contact Doug McMurdo at
dmcmurdo@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512.

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