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A Haywood County woman has pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges for filing bogus unemployment claims on behalf of unsuspecting victims, a scam that bilked the government for more than $29,000 in fake unemployment benefits over a two-year period.

A recent designation by the North Carolina Department of Commerce could have a detrimental impact on Haywood County’s economic development efforts.

op frBy Doug Wingeier • Columnist

Debate is picking up these days on help for the unemployed and low-wage workers. Congress is balking on extending unemployment compensation. The media and public are going back and forth on raising the minimum wage. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida are demanding (and often getting) a penny more per pound for the tomatoes they pick. And fast food and big box employees are taking matters into their own hands by going out on strike to demand better wages and working conditions.

 The emergency unemployment insurance program for the long-term unemployed expired on Dec. 28, leaving 1.5 million unfortunate folk in the lurch. Since it was implemented in 2008, more than 24 million Americans have received these benefits, which have helped them to pay rent, feed their children, and keep the lights on. In addition to the 1.3 million who stopped receiving benefits last month, if the program isn’t extended, an additional 3.6 million will lose access to this vital lifeline by the end of 2014. This program doesn’t just help the long-term unemployed. Failing to extend it would also be a huge drain on the economy, eliminating an estimated additional 240,000 jobs.

Similar to other parts of the U.S., counties in Western North Carolina have been plagued with high unemployment rates and little job growth.

“We have a lot still unemployed,” said Vicki Gribble, head of Haywood County’s Employment Security Commission.

There are about 600 people still receiving unemployment checks in Haywood County, and only 29 jobs listed for the county on the state Employment Security Commission’s website. The clearinghouse of jobs is by no means all-inclusive: employers choose whether to post their openings with the agency. But it is a relevant indicator of the sparse job market.

And, the number of people getting unemployment checks does not even factor in the amount of jobless individuals who have maxed out their unemployment benefits.

As of late last week, Macon, Jackson and Swain counties showed similar signs of slow growth. The counties had 26, 29 and 10 full-time job openings listed, respectively.

“This is about average,” said Dale West, manager of the Employment Security Commission in those three counties. Some additional temporary and seasonal positions are advertised in summer and spring though, she said.

The majority open at the moment are for registered nurses, social workers and school jobs.

When people get laid off, West encourages them to be re-trained to do something else.

“Some of their jobs might not come back as they were,” West said.

 

Employment resources

Each county in North Carolina has an Employment Security Commission, which lists open positions in the county as well as providing employment services. Most of the positions require some specialized training and are in the manufacturing or medical fields. Visit www.ncesc.com, and click on the Individual Services tab to search for jobs in your area or profession.

People once again lined up at the Biltmore Square Mall in Asheville last week, but this time they weren't waiting for hours to see Santa Claus. Instead, they were looking for a belated Christmas gift — a job.

The mall was the site of the largest job fair in the mountains, boasting more than 1,200 open positions. About 2,000 people showed up for the event, most of them members of the 10 percent of unemployed residents of North Carolina.

An older gentleman in a grey three-piece suit looked overwhelmed as he surveyed the seemingly never-ending rows of employers and possible employees that filled a vast majority of the mall.

Barbara Darby, who helped run the event put on by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Coalition, said she was not surprised by the turnout.

SEE ALSO: Stuck in a rut: Too few jobs coming on line 

"We are well aware of the large numbers looking for work," said Darby, a member of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board.

People traveled from all around Western North Carolina — Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Yancey, Madison, Polk — in search of a job or a better opportunity.

"There are really no county lines when it comes to finding jobs," said Mark Clasby, executive director of Haywood County's Economic Development Commission. "People will really commute where the jobs are."

About 15 percent of Haywood County residents travel outside the county to work, Clasby said, and at least 3,000 people commute into Haywood County for work.

The dismal job market has forced some unemployed individuals to move.

During the past year, Tonya Turner, 40, packed up her belongings and moved from Haywood County to a place in Mars Hill with her son. She is looking for "a new start," she said.

Turner has been jobless for a year and has applied for more than 20 jobs during that time. She is looking for a position as a receptionist or in medical billing and has experience as an administrative employee.


The Potential Hires

While many participants put a face and a name on WNC's more than 8 percent unemployment rate, a number of people with current jobs attended the fair looking for better benefits or for a second or third job to help pay their bills. Some proactively applied for positions, knowing they might soon receive a pink slip.

"It's time to find me something better," said Josh Grooms, a 23-year-old Canton resident.

Grooms works for a roofing company in Fletcher, near Asheville, but the benefits do not include health insurance — a costly bill to foot on one's own.

He was hopeful, however, that he would find a new job at the fair.

"They have plenty of decent jobs out here," Grooms said.

There was no age, social class or race that predominated the fair. Quickly glancing around, anyone could spot a teenager or young 20-something as well as people well into their 50s and 60s. The dress code ranged from jeans, T-shirts and boots to suits and ties.

Terry Gant — one of the baseball hat, T-shirt and jeans people — said he was looking for "anything."

The Haywood County resident is a former employee of Volvo Construction Equipment.

The Volvo plant in Asheville closed in March 2010 and shifted its operations to some of the company's other manufacturing facilities around the world.

The move left Gant and 227 other people without jobs. Gant, 46, said he hasn't worked since.

"I am just ready to get back to work," he said.

Gant has not been sitting on the sidelines waiting, however. He went back to community college and will soon have his associate's degree in industrial systems technology. The degree, plus his welding and electrical experience, will make Gant much more marketable and increase his chances of getting a job.

Like Gant, Darren and Melinda Sims, also causalities of the Volvo plant closure, decided to return to school. The out-of-work couple from Fairview won't graduate until next year but knowing the trouble they will likely face, wanted to get a head start on the job search. Darren, 41, wants to finds a job in industrial systems, and Melinda, 40, is looking for an administrative position.


A noble effort

On the outskirts of the melee at the mall were applicants such as Ken Childers from the Whittier area in Jackson County, who was filling out packets and reading information collected along the employment trail.

Childers worked at a steel mill for 27 years before starting his own trucking company in 2005 — just two years before the recession began. He was not able to sustain his business as diesel prices skyrocketed up to $4.75 a gallon in 2007.

The National Bureau of Economic Research, a private, nonprofit research group, marked the start of the recession as December 2007. And although the group declared the downturn over as of June 2009, the U.S. is still beset with high unemployment rates and fears of a double-dip recession.

"It's tough out there," said Childers, 55. "You almost have to have two jobs today."

Similar to many fair attendees, Childers is looking for anything he can get. He is even willing to move from his family's 100-year-old farm for a job.

Childers was somewhat pessimistic about the prospect of finding something at the fair, saying there's a "lot of people for them to choose from."


The Employers

Many area businesses are wary of the economy and are only adding one or two jobs at a time.

"I think businesses are very cautious," Clasby said. But, "The economy is slowly improving overall."

With such slow growth, the addition of 35 jobs at Sonoco Plastics in Waynesville is considered a boom. In the past, that number would have been considered low.

"That is kind of a big number all of the sudden," Clasby said. "That's not the norm unfortunately."

Sonoco, which makes plastic trays for frozen food dinners, was among the more than 80 employers at the job fair.

"We are excited to be growing," said Vanessa Crouch, human resources manager at the Waynesville plant. "It's an employer's market right now."

Because the country is still experiencing high rates of unemployment and few companies hiring, employers can be more selective with whom they hire.

Sonoco received 175 applications for seven recently filled positions, Crouch said. The company is hiring only a handful of new employees at a time so as not overload itself with trainees, she said.

Among the open positions are supervisory staff, quality technicians, maintenance personnel and packers.

Amidst the many Asheville area employees at the jobs fair was Mission Health, a healthcare provider with centers throughout WNC, including Angel Medical Center in Franklin.

As of the early afternoon, Gloria Perry, a hiring specialist with Mission Health, said "easily 300" people has already visited their table.

"It breaks your heart sometimes," said Perry, whose husband is actually unemployed. "Everybody's so desperate."

As of Monday, the Mission Hospital website listed 197 available full-time and part-time positions at its various facilities in Western North Carolina — a testament to the health care field as one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the economy. The medical group's biggest need is certified nursing assistants, Perry said, later adding that she had met many displaced or soon-to-be-certified nursing assistants at the fair.


October 2011 unemployment rates

Haywood County 8.6 percent

Jackson County 8 percent

Macon County 9.6 percent

Swain County 12 percent

Source: N.C. Employment Security Commission. October is the most recent month for which data is available.

Dianne Lee is one of the lucky ones — an experienced and talented stained-glass artist, she has a ready-made job to replace at least some of the income she earns at the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching in Cullowhee.

This month, NCCAT Director Elaine Franklin was forced to notify 50 percent of the teaching center’s workforce they were losing their jobs because of state budget cuts. That translates to about 30 fulltime jobs in Jackson County, plus another five to 10 at the center’s campus in Ocracoke. The annual salaries of the laid-off workers ranged from the lower end of $20,000 up to $80,000, Franklin said.

Lee was one of the victims. She has worked at NCCAT for 18 of the institution’s 25 years, helping with programs and running NCCAT’s Alumni Weekends. NCCAT provides training and development for teachers around the state, keeping them inspired and, in turn, more likely to stay in the profession.

“I’m going to make lemon out of lemonade,” said Lee, who in a lengthy phone interview sounded more worried about her colleagues’ employment prospects than her own. “I am losing sleep over them — some are scared to death.”

And, in fact, it’s not going to be easy in this harsh economic climate for the NCCAT workers to replace those state salaries and benefits. They are more likely, experts say, to join the ranks of the growing underemployed in North Carolina.

 

How WNC’s recession unfolded

“This thing has come in waves,” said Victor Moore of OnTrack Financial Education and Counseling, a nonprofit based in Asheville that offers consumer credit advice for North Carolina’s 18 westernmost counties.

Moore said the first wave of help seekers to come to OnTrack when the recession hit were people who basically had engaged in bad loans and were defaulting at the first hint of economic trouble. Then, the construction and building industry faltered, and threw many in the region out of work. The land speculators were next — plans to “flip” properties and make quick profits were no longer viable options, and some people with second homes were also soon in trouble.

Now, to an extent, come the underemployed, Moore said. These might be workers who find a lower paying job, but can’t bank on 40 hours a week and aren’t working up to their earning potential.

Lee, for instance, won’t necessarily start showing up in the official monthly unemployment rate, because she will be operating her business, the Stained Glass Bungalow in Waynesville.

The unemployment rate decreased in just under half of North Carolina’s 100 counties in May, which state officials attributed to a rise in seasonal employment. The state rate was 9.7 percent for that month. Jackson stood at 8.8 percent, Haywood 9 percent, Macon 9.9 percent and Swain 11.1 percent unemployment.

But those numbers fail to take into account the underemployed, a demographic Lee and her laid-off colleagues who are lucky enough to find work are likely to fit — people in WNC who lose one level of job and pay, and are forced to accept a lower level job for less pay and, often, fewer hours.

“Because they are not just going to go out and find comparable employment right now,” said Amy Grimes, director of The Community Table, a soup kitchen in Sylva. “Or, the jobs they can get pay them less than collecting unemployment, which was based on the job lost.”

A recent survey at The Community Table showed an increase in the number of people seeking help who are college educated, Grimes said.

Mark Clasby, executive director of the Haywood County Economic Development Commission, said the unemployment numbers don’t truly reveal the extent of the problem.

“They don’t include the people who have given up on the system,” Clasby said, adding that he worries about what’s coming down the pike for North Carolina.

The state budget problems might continue to compound, he said, leading to even more job losses in the local and state governmental sectors.

“It could be an even bigger problem next year,” Clasby said.

 

It’s all in the numbers

Franklin, head of NCCAT, gets emotional when she talks about having to lay off about half of the 82-member staff, which followed a budget cut by the state General Assembly from $6.1 million to $3.1 million.

This wasn’t about performance issues, this was about money, said Franklin.

“We’re losing good people,” Franklin said, apologizing for tearing up during the interview. “We also told them we hoped to be getting funding through grants and contracts — I hope to hire them back if we can.”

Lee said she has no bitter feelings toward NCCAT or Franklin, she just regrets losing a job she loved so much. Franklin, Lee said, did what she had to do following such drastic budget cuts.

“NCCAT is the only organization in the nation who does this sort of work for (state) teachers,” Lee said. “I cannot tell you how much it means to me.”

Lee has just two years left before she could draw full retirement benefits from the state, and she said there is a possibility that she’ll move to get the necessary time in with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

There are jobs openings to be found locally, but they pay $8.50 to $9 or so an hour, said Ann Howell, branch manager in Sylva for the N.C. Employment Security Commission. Howell went last week to NCCAT to talk with the people being laid-off.

“I try to be positive,” the 26-year agency veteran said. “You’ve got to be positive — new doors open everyday. Right now, in these times, perhaps it’s not the brightest doors, but there are some jobs out there.”

The N.C. JobConnector is a new state service that’s proving helpful, she said. It uses an automated system that matches job orders and job seekers based on job-order requirements and job-seekers’ experiences. People are alerted by email to possible employment opportunities — kind of like match.com for employers and prospective employees.

Dale West, a regional manager for the Employment Security Commission based in Macon County, said she is stunned by the impact the construction drop-off had to Western North Carolina’s overall economy, and that the waves are continuing to roll in.

“I knew the construction trade was a major force in our economy, but I’m not sure I understood how big a force it was,” she said.

The jobs lost did not come in one fell swoop, West said, but in a continuous trickle from such tangential businesses as building supply companies.

“A few from lots of different places,” she said.

West also pointed out that many of the people who work in construction or related trades can’t draw unemployment because they worked as sub-contractors, and their bosses did not have to file unemployment taxes as a result.

With North Carolina suffering from some of the worst unemployment rates in the country, the U.S. Treasury Department is dedicating $159 million to help laid off workers in the state avoid foreclosure.

Another $121 million is likely on the way, according to Margaret Matrone, communications director for the N.C. Housing Finance Agency.

Over the next three years, federal dollars will help 7,200 jobless people statewide keep up with mortgage payments while they seek new jobs or train for a career switch.

“It will help stabilize property values in their neighborhoods by reducing the number of foreclosure sales,” said A. Robert Kucab, executive director of the N.C. Housing Finance Agency.

The federal assistance has only been made available to the 17 “hardest hit states” that are suffering from high unemployment rates and dismal housing markets.

In 2009, about a quarter of the state’s population lived in a county with an unemployment rate of 12 percent or higher. North Carolina suffered the loss of 278,000 jobs between 2007 and 2009.

The Hardest Hit program will be made available in Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties only in December.

Most of the allocated money will cover entire mortgage payments for the unemployed, while the remainder will refinance loans to reduce monthly bills. Residents in 50 struggling counties in North Carolina, including Swain County, will qualify for additional financial assistance.

With the Hardest Hit program, the unemployed may be eligible for 24 months of mortgage payments up to $24,000 in most counties. Those who reside in the 50 high unemployment counties in North Carolina could receive 36 months of mortgage payments up to $36,000.

The North Carolina Housing Finance Agency, which will administer the federal program, already offers similar assistance to the unemployed.

Unlike other states, North Carolina already has experience running a similar program. The state Home Protection Program helps struggling workers pay their mortgages through interest-free loans for up to 15 years.

However, Matrone points out that it will be much easier to qualify for the federal program. Also, those who receive Hardest Hit assistance won’t have to pay back anything if they don’t move from their house for at least 10 years.

But Matrone suggests that North Carolina residents struggling to keep up with house payments should not wait till December to seek assistance.

“If you’re on the verge of foreclosure now, it’s much better to go ahead and use the program that’s available,” said Matrone.

For more information, contact On Track Financial Education and Counseling Services in Asheville at 828.255.5166 or 800.737.5485.

Sitting in the Job Link site in Sylva looking for jobs on a computer database, Kathleen Codon of Cullowhee hit on something promising — a posting for a construction project manager.

Jobs like those are rare these days with the recession driving construction down.

Cordon said she’ll apply for the job but she’s cautiously optimistic since she’s sent out 50 to 60 resumes to no avail during her two months without a job.

January unemployment rates for the area were released by the Employment Security Commission last week with almost every county in the double digits.

Cordon was working for a construction firm until she got laid off. She has been doggedly searching for a job since by e-mailing resumes and going to construction sites in person to ask for work.

“I’ll speak to whoever is willing to talk to me,” she said.

While visiting family in New York City and Miami she also searched for jobs but didn’t have any luck.

However, Cordon may have gotten a job by now if she weren’t too picky in wanting a supervisory position. She said she didn’t get a bachelor’s degree in construction management just so she could sit in an office and do secretarial work.

“I need something more than that,” she said. “I have too much energy to sit still.”

Fortunately she is in a position where she can hold out and look for the job she desires rather than settling for something that will pay the bills. With her husband employed as an administrator at Western Carolina University, they have the income to cover the necessities.

That doesn’t mean everything is OK with her being out of work. She can’t do many of the things she enjoys like traveling and buying nice clothes. She recently decided to apply for unemployment benefits after holding out for a while thinking she would land a job.

“I didn’t think I would be unemployed this long,” she said.

The construction sector has taken a big hit in Jackson County, said Ann Howell, branch manager of the Employment Security Commission office in Sylva. Macon County, which also relies heavily on the construction of second homes as a big industry, has also seen huge declines in that area.

T&S Hardwoods in Sylva has announced it will cease operation in May, taking with it 76 jobs. ConMet in Swain County has also had significant layoffs, Howell said. The Evergreen paper mill in Canton cut 40 positions this month.

 

No jobs available

The job search has become too depressing, said Tony Wykle of Macon County.

“What’s the point of looking for something that’s not there?” he asked. “It’s spring and jobs should be popping up everywhere, but they’re not.”

The fast food restaurants and housekeeping jobs aren’t even available now, said Janet Wykle, Tony’s wife.

John Short has worked at the Macon Employment Security Commission for 26 years and said now may be the worst he’s seen.

Many of the jobs available are nurse positions, which many aren’t qualified for, Short said. Other than that there’s not much available so all the ESC can do for people is set them up with unemployment benefits.

Stephanie Adams of Franklin was also at the Macon County ESC last week, with both herself and her fiancée unemployed. He was laid off in December from his construction job.

Stephanie said it is normally standing room only at the ESC. She and her fiancée are surviving with the help of family, church and CareNet — a non-profit agency that helps people who are struggling financially. To make matters even more stressful, Stephanie is seven months pregnant.

“We’re struggling,” she said. “Depending on other people is horrible.”

For her maternity clothes he had to go to CareNet and wait in long lines, she said.

The hope is that with spring arriving more construction work will become available, she said. But she is not optimistic that the recession will end soon, adding that she thinks the government is doing a poor job of trying to help the situation.

Bonnie Phillips, a secretary at the Macon County ESC, overheard Adams and said the economic problems go beyond the government, saying the world is in the “end times” and “Jesus is our only hope.”

Robert Souther sat at a table at the ESC filling out a job application for a new Bojangles fast food restaurant coming to town. He lost his job as a cook at the Motor City Grill in Franklin and has been out of work since December.

Since then he has filled out “hundreds” of job applications for everything from “fast food to factory work.” There has been slim pickings, however, so he decided to use his time wisely and enroll at Southwestern Community College with the financial help of his family to learn about computer engineering so he can have more job skills when the economy rebounds.

As competitive as the job market is, Souther has an even bigger challenge finding a job with a felony conviction for bank robbery on his record.

Being unemployed is tough on a man’s soul, Souther said.

“You feel useless,” Souther said. “It’s frustrating. You tighten your belt up and do what you’ve got to do.”

Luckily his wife has a job at Drake Software that keeps the family, which includes two children ages 16 and 18, above water.

People may just go back to growing their on food and using the barter system, said Souther.

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