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Frustration and fear The region's long-term unemployed cling to the hope they'll be able to find work

Rhonda Mingo, out of work since last January, gave her grandchildren $5 as Christmas gifts and for the first time didn't get a tree for her apartment.

Joe Voytovich, who hasn't had a full-time job since 2008, has taken out a home equity loan, run up credit card debt and is dipping into his 401(k) to pay his property tax bill.

And Curtis Woods, who lost his job as a customer-service rep last June, sleeps on a friend's couch, gave up his phone and catches the bus or rides from friends to get around.

He stays hopeful as he knocks on the doors of Elmwood Avenue businesses and applies for janitorial jobs at area hotels.

"Yeah, yeah, I still say when I get a job. When I get a job," Woods said last month at the Response to Love Center as he waited to pick up free Christmas gifts for his children.

They are three of the faces of the recession, which is marked by the number of people who lost their jobs and by how long they have been out of work.

While the economy showed signs of improving last year, a U.S. Labor Department report released Friday shows companies aren't hiring enough people to make much of a dent in the unemployed population.

And many recipients of jobless benefits still couldn't find work before extended assistance ran out.

"You get a lot of questions, like, 'What have you been doing for two years?' " said Voytovich, a former engineer with Motorola. "How do you respond?"

For Mingo, Voytovich and Woods, and millions across the country, being out of work for so long has taken a deep personal toll.

"I think people tend to forget, or not realize, when you lose a job, you are grieving -- it's a loss," said Judith A. Tederous, an official with the Niagara County Employment and Training Center. "Layoffs are hard. Layoffs are really hard, because they're out of the employee's control. There's nothing you did."

>Many have given up

The Buffalo Niagara region didn't get hit as hard as other parts of the country in this latest recession, which was fueled by the housing crisis and the implosion on Wall Street.

But this area still hasn't seen employment reach its pre-2001 levels, said George M. Palumbo, a Canisius College economist.

In Erie and Niagara counties, in November 2007, the unemployment rate was 4.7 percent and there were 27,600 people unemployed, according to state Labor Department data.

By November 2009, those figures had risen to 7.9 percent unemployment and 46,000 people without jobs, before basically leveling off in 2010.

Those statistics don't tell the entire story because they don't count people who stopped looking for a job, or who aren't able to work, Palumbo said.

"You've got a large pool of people sitting there who've given up," he said.

The number of people getting hired and the number separated from their jobs don't change that much, said John Slenker, the state Labor Department's regional economist in Buffalo.

In Erie and Niagara counties, both numbers are between 10,000 and 15,000 per month.

However, during the recession, more people held on to their jobs than is typical, leaving a jobs deficit of about 700 people per month between 2007 and 2009.

"You end up with this cumulative effect," Slenker said.

The federal government repeatedly has extended unemployment benefits, through the end of this year, but many struggle to find full-time jobs.

Nationally, the number of long-term unemployed -- those out of work at least 27 weeks -- was 6.4 million in December. And the percent of unemployed who have been out of work this long: 44.3.

>Jobless aid falls short

Mingo, who would only reveal that she is "50-plus," said she has had a job since she was 16.

"I've never been laid off this long," she said.

From 1999 to last January, the North Buffalo resident worked as an administrative assistant for the Buffalo Urban League, earning $18,000 per year.

Last Jan. 12, her boss told her she was being let go in a downsizing move that left Mingo feeling bitter and angry at first.

She receives unemployment benefits, but they amount to about one-third of her already low, full-time salary.

Her husband, Ricky, can't work and is on disability for a back injury he suffered a few years ago.

"This was more fuel to the fire," Mingo said in an interview at a Bagel Jay's in North Buffalo. "[We] pray a lot. Cut back. Just basic things. When we go shopping, less of everything."

Mingo doesn't go to the hairdresser anymore, and they don't go out to the movies very often.

She bought Christmas cards, two for $1, and put $5 in each card for each of her four grandchildren as their gifts.

Her husband was forced to sell his Dodge Durango SUV.

"That was our vehicle, so back to the buses, back to the taxis," she said. "We take a taxi to church."

Mingo spends six to eight hours per day looking for jobs online.

She said she has applied for about 150 to 200 positions over the past year, and has gotten 12 in-person interviews.

"I look at it this way, at least I got an interview," Mingo said.

>Self-esteem hits zero

Woods has been looking for work since he was laid off last June from the customer service job he had held for nine months. The 33-year-old has had one interview, for work as a janitor.

While he was waiting to hear back from that company, he continued to apply for jobs.

"I'll call them back. 'Has my application been reviewed?' 'Call us back. Call another day. Haven't made my decision yet. Call back again,' " Woods said.

Being out of work for so long has been hard for Woods, who previously lived with his girlfriend and was able to help out with expenses.

"Going from paying bills and having a little change in your pocket to having nothing is very stressful and very hard," he said.

Now, he's living on the couch of his friend, Michael Gilhooly, and his unemployment benefits ran out after 26 weeks.

He stopped by the Response to Love Center, where Gilhooly works, to pick up presents for his 8-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter.

"I see my kids, and I can't get them what they want," Woods said.

Many of the people using the food pantry, dining program and thrift shop at the Response to Love Center aren't used to being out of work, said Sister Mary Johnice Rzadkiewicz, the center's longtime director.

"Their self-esteem, basically, goes down to zero, because they're embarrassed. They have a sense of pride. They've worked all their lives," she said.

Now, many feel helpless as they worry about how they can support their families and take care of basic needs, she added.

At the Niagara County Employment and Training Center, so many people are using its services that the center has had to offer more group sessions in place of individual aid, said Tederous, the center official.

The center also offers a program for unemployed mid- and upper-level managers, like Robert Majka of North Tonawanda.

The Canisius College graduate has been out of work since last May, when he lost his job at a local HSBC data center -- the fifth time he's been laid off.

"Not easier, but the initial impact is less," he said. "The first time I got laid off, it was, what did I personally do wrong?"

He's in pretty good shape because he received a severance package from HSBC, he's single with no children, and his house and car are paid off.

"Because I'm a computer person, I do things very logically," Majka said last month. "Come Jan. 1, I'm going to broaden my search. Come July 1, anything and everything looks good."

>Is age a factor?

Except for part-time and temporary work, Voytovich has been out of a job since June 2008, the same year his wife left him and his dog died.

"I thought, jeez, it's like a country western [song]," Voytovich said with a rueful laugh.

He's worked in electronics manufacturing for years, including as an engineer with Motorola from 1994 to 2002, when the company moved his department to a plant in Mexico.

He most recently worked for a start-up firm that began in the basement of the founder, before losing that job 2 1/2 years ago.

He's applied for about 100 jobs, but nothing has panned out.

He worries that his age, 55, hurts him with firms that want someone younger.

At a recent interview, he said, "The first words out of him were, 'Just how old are you?' "

He has worked as a tax preparer with Jackson Hewitt this tax season, at close to full-time hours. His 99 weeks of benefits ran out in August, and since then he's taken out a $15,000 home equity loan and put $4,000 on his credit card.

Now, with a $2,000 property-tax bill due in February, he will have to use his 401(k) to pay it.

His son, who lives at home, is supportive but frustration can seep through.

"My son was saying, 'Just get a job at McDonald's,' " Voytovich said. "I don't know if they would hire me."

Will anything improve in 2011 for Voytovich and the others?

>No quick fix ahead

Ben S. Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, told senators on Friday it could be four or five years before the labor market returns to normal.

Also Friday, the U.S. Labor Department reported the December unemployment rate was 9.4 percent, an improvement over the 9.9 percent rate for the same month in 2009.

The number of long-term unemployed, defined as those out of work for 27 weeks or more, held steady at 6.4 million.

The economy added 103,000 jobs in December, but that level of growth won't make a dent in the unemployment rate.

Unemployment is tied to the nation's gross domestic product, and roughly two-thirds of this country's GDP is consumption, said Canisius' Palumbo.

Consumer spending began to increase late last year, during the holiday shopping season, but it won't go up significantly until consumers' income, wealth, confidence and access to credit all go up, he said.

Bernanke and others say the economy is improving, slowly, but hiring has lagged behind.

"The unemployment rate went up incrementally," said Slenker, the regional state economist. "It's going to sneak back down. It may take awhile, but it will come back down."

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com