WASHINGTON — Vicki Ziegler, 49, lost her apartment when she got laid off from her $13-an-hour sales assistant job in August, and now she and her 11-year-old son share a bedroom in her aunt's condo in Kent, Wash.
She's worried that she won't be able to make her $157 monthly car payment if she loses her $285 a week in unemployment benefits.
"If I have no car, no food, what am I supposed to do?" she asked. "Let my child starve?"
Ziegler is among the 100,000 people in Washington state and 5 million Americans who will lose their unemployment benefits if Congress doesn't vote by the end of the year to extend them.
Those people include Sheila Clanin, 63, of Bellevue, Wash., who has applied for 500 jobs — with no luck — since getting laid off as an engineering technician in June 2010. She gets $396 a week in unemployment benefits and is thinking of dying her white hair to look younger to help her get a job.
"It's kind of depressing," Clanin said. "I wasn't depressed at first. In fact, the first of the year, I thought, `OK, this is going to be it.' But nothing ever happened. And you know, nothing is going on. Nobody seems to be hiring."
They also include Scott Tweedy, 46, who worked for 20 years at his $50,000-a-year job as an operations manager before getting laid off in March. Now he fears he will lose his one-story rambler in Olalla, Wash., if Congress takes away his $482 unemployment check, but he's trying to stay positive.
"I know there's a heckuva lot of people that are in a much worse-off situation than me," he said.
In Washington, where the maximum weekly unemployment check is $583, the state's Employment Security Department began sending out letters this week, telling the unemployed that their checks will soon stop coming if Congress fails to act.
On Thursday, it remained unclear what members would do as they struggled to wrap up their business for the year, with hopes of getting out of town for the holidays by Friday night.
House Republicans voted on Tuesday to extend the benefits as part of a broader plan to continue a Social Security payroll tax cut, but they angered Senate Democrats by refusing to allow a surtax on millionaires to pay for it. And President Barack Obama promised to veto the House bill, upset that it also included a 1,700-mile project to deliver oil from oil sands in Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Despite the gridlock, Republicans and Democrats alike said it's important for Congress to extend jobless benefits.
In the House, Republican Rep. Dave Reichert of Washington state said it's "critically important to many of this country's most vulnerable citizens."
"Inaction is unacceptable," he said.
And in the Senate, Democrat Patty Murray said that unemployment benefits are providing "a lifeline" for the unemployed.
"This should be an easy issue. ... It would simply be wrong to cut this support off while the economy continues to struggle and so many workers are having difficulty finding work," she said.
To promote an extension, Murray's office produced an interactive map on her website, showing the county-by-county impact if Congress lets the jobless benefits expire. She said she has received hundreds of letters, e-mails, pictures and videos from unemployed Washington state residents, including Ziegler, Clanin and Tweedy, whose stories she shared in a speech Wednesday on the Senate floor.
In interviews, the three said they feared for the worst if Congress doesn't come to their rescue.
Ziegler said she's been "pounding the pavement" in search for another job but can't find anything, and she's worried that she'll have no way to get to job interviews if she loses her car. She worked for a hydraulic repair company in Puyallup, Wash., and said she's "very fortunate" to have been laid off for only four months.
Ziegler said her income is supplemented by $325 a month in child support from her ex-husband, but she has no medical insurance. She began crying as she talked about her son having to switch schools and leave his friends behind, moving to a new building with no kids and a lot of older people, including her 75-year-old aunt.
"He had to start a new school, and then, you know, just not having a lot of extra money," Ziegler said. "And I know that's not what Christmas is about, giving gifts, but when you're a child and your mom has to keep saying, `Well, I don't have money to do this,' it's really tough. And I feel horrible."
Clanin said she was devastated when she lost her 30-hour-a-week job, which paid $27 an hour. She said it has meant no more vacations, no more dining out, no more concerts, no more holiday donations.
She said she doesn't want to tap into her 401(k) retirement money, but that's her plan if she loses her unemployment benefits.
"I don't want to live on the edge of poverty in my retirement," Clanin said. "It's not like we're living a fabulous life right now, even before I lost my job. But I might have to just bite the bullet."
Tweedy said he is drawing unemployment, which he called "a godsend," for the first time, after spending 30 years in the workforce. He said he had more than 70 solid job leads this year, but none came through — one position had 500 applicants. He worked for a transportation company until it was bought by a private-equity firm, which immediately began cutting employees.
Tweedy said he has been surprised that he hasn't been able to find a job, but he said he has had more time around the house, first for painting, now for putting up Christmas lights. He lives with his wife and daughter, a senior in high school. With less than $10,000 in savings, he worries that he soon won't be able to pay his $1,200 monthly mortgage payment and will lose his home of 14 years, becoming "just another statistic."
But he said that his wife, a customer services clerk, keeps him encouraged. And he said it's the holiday season, a time to "step back and kind of be thankful for what you do have."
"That's the way I've always looked at things, and that's what keeps me going," he said. "I always try to say, `Man, it could be a heckuva lot worse.' "
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