by Carrie Watters and Lesley Wright - Dec. 11, 2008 The Arizona Republic
A recession marked by a plunge in home values, stores shutting down and job losses are marking this holiday season.
The unemployment rate in metro Phoenix hit 5.5 percent last month, with November figures released in the coming weeks expected to climb.
"It's scary now, and it will be scary into next year," said Scott Schulz, who directs the Career and Employment Services Center at Glendale Community College.
Rio Salado Community College, Maricopa County Colleges and state agencies are coping with a rising tide of students, young workers, returning veterans and re-careering baby boomers at local employment assistance centers.
There is a wide variety of options for those laid off, including help in the West Valley.
Unemployment rates exist only for the Phoenix metro area as a whole, but economist Elliott Pollack said that while it's bad everywhere, the West Valley is likely feeling a slightly worse downturn.
The Valley economist doesn't foresee long-term damage, although he expects the short-term pain to continue well into 2009.
That struggle is felt by many, including West Valley resident Tiffany Land, 21.
The former cleaning-company owner recently pounded the pavement in search of work. Her husband was able to land a job in cellular-phone sales, but she continued to search for 2 1/2 months after she shut down her cleaning company, which lost contracts with furniture stores that went belly-up.
"Anything out there, I'll take," she said.
A record number of Arizonans - nearly 65,000 - are receiving unemployment benefits, according to Patrick Harrington, assistant director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security for employment and rehabilitation services.
The number of people being cut small government checks to tide them over until they find another job has roughly doubled since last year, he said, up about 25 percent from 2006.
Last week alone, 8,406 new unemployment benefit claims were filed. Meanwhile, 6,200 people in October sought to brush up their résumés, retool skills or otherwise get help with job searches at the Maricopa Workforce Connection's one-stop West Valley Career Center.
Rio Salado College offers most services online, including live chats with counselors.
Jacque Beale, director of Rio Salado's career center, advises people to take advantage of the skills and interests assessments available to help find new career paths.
"We encourage them to come in," Beale said. "A lot of times, people don't realize that with our questions, we can probe what they've done, where their life may be. We go for the passion."
College courses vary quite a bit, with some online classes starting every week for quick retraining and re-entry into the workforce.
"We even have an 11-minute stress-management workshop," counselor Melanie Abts said.
Employees who have not had to search for work in years may find that the path to new employment has changed tremendously. But so have the resources available.
Schulz said older workers often come into the Career and Employment Services Center at Glendale Community College with detailed résumés in fancy fonts. Those days are long gone. Most résumés are boring, he said, and must be sent online with key phrases embedded to make it through the preliminary electronic sorting at human resource departments.
Trained professionals are ready to help people navigate the unfamiliar waters at any of Maricopa Community College's 10 campuses, along with some satellite sites.
Résumé and interview workshops, skills assessments and counseling for new careers - along with advice on retraining - are available without charge. A resident does not have to be a student to take advantage of the college district's services.
Residents also can go to the West Valley Workforce Connection center for similar services. Funded by the federal government, the connection offices can help veterans, laid-off workers and others find grants for retraining.
Kevin Berry, who directs the West Valley one-stop, said the office has about 20 partner programs and can serve specialized needs. People who are older than 55 or younger than 24 have their own programs, as do people on federal assistance.
"We are definitely seeing an increase of people within the last eight months," Berry said. "The main thing is that a lot of people need to find employment right now."
Budgeting in a downturn
Richard Merican, a branch manager at Raymond James Financial Services in Arrowhead, advises clients to pay down the mortgage and squirrel away at least six months of expenses.
Sound advice, but many now faced with shrinking paychecks or layoffs are beyond that point.
Jeanine Lipka, vice president of branch counseling for the Consumer Credit Counseling Service, offers these tips:
• Get unemployment rolling right away.
• Document spending. Most know exactly what they earn, but few can detail exactly where it goes.
• Prioritize needs vs. wants (the car note vs. the deluxe cable package or the a.m. pit stop for latte).
• Contact creditors, whether mortgage lender or credit-card companies. Communicating is always better than ignoring. (Hint: They won't go away.) Some have hardship assistance programs, and in the mortgage realm, new programs are popping up regularly.
• Get on your utility company's budget plan to avoid sticker shock.
• Reach out for third-party assistance, such as the Consumer Credit Counseling Service, which has an office near Bell Road at 17235 N. 75th Ave. Suite C-125. Counselors at the non-profit can give an unbiased look at your budget. If you can't work up the courage to call lenders, they can help get an intermediary. CCCS offers free sessions in person or over the phone to create budget plans and, if necessary, debt management. Call 800-308-2227.
• Debt collectors, by law, must stop calling if you put the request in writing. That can ease stress, but it doesn't make debt go away.
• Even if it's $5 a paycheck, put money aside for the unexpected.
• Put your retirement fund in the "not unless desperate" file. Pulling money out during a low market will hurt - you will pay taxes on it and it won't be there when you retire.
Arizona's benefits are among the lowest in the United States, but about two-thirds of applicants qualify for the high end of the state's unemployment pay: $240 a week.
With the latest extension signed by President Bush late last month, Arizonans can receive benefits for 46 weeks. If unemployment rates continue to rise, that will bump to a full year.
Here's some need-to-know information to navigate the bureaucracy that goes with the unemployment check:
• File online at www.azui.com or by phone at 602-364-2722 in the Phoenix area, 520-791-2722 in Tucson or 877-600-2722 statewide. It's best to file online, as the phone systems are difficult to access. If you don't have a computer, go to a library. If unfamiliar with the Internet, visit the West Valley One-Stop Center, which can walk you through the application. The center is at 1840 N. 95th Ave., Suite 160, Phoenix, or call 602-372-4200.
• File as soon as you are laid off to get the ball rolling before any employer severance package runs out.
If a claim has no issues that need investigating (about 30 percent of claims do), unemployment benefits could begin in less than two weeks.
Federal guidelines dictate that 80 percent of claims should be handled within 21 days. In Arizona, 50 percent are handled within that window. Most of the rest are processed within a month and a half, according to Patrick F. Harrington with the state Department of Economic Security.
"We are pretty backed up," he admits.
The state agency has added 78 staffers since May and is about to hire 45 more. But Harrington said not enough investigators are in the pipeline to handle the massive load.
• Not sure you qualify? File to find out.
• To qualify, a person must have been let go or have extenuating circumstances for quitting a job.
• What you will need to apply: Social Security number or alien registration number, mailing address, contact information for employers in the past 18 months, final work date, severance and other final paycheck details, as well as any pension payment information. Military veterans, federal civil servants and union members may need further documents.
• To keep receiving benefits, applicants must update the state each week on job searches and other details.
• Any earnings must be reported, and the amount of unemployment pay is reduced accordingly.