Jobless pushed to the brink by benefits impasse

By: - May 27, 2011 11:52 am

Fay Walton wrote out a suicide note last week, letting the thought of being worth more dead than alive step out from where it lurked in the back of her head.

“If I just end it, maybe there’s a little insurance money that my husband will have,” she recalled thinking.

The 52-year-old Salisbury woman is desperate, and has no idea what the future hold for her. She’s been unemployed since August 2009 and spent the last six weeks without the federally-funded extended unemployment benefits she subsisted on. An impasse between state leaders over the state budget has meant nearly 46,000 long-term jobless North Carolinians like her have been without the federal benefits.

Soon after she wrote the suicide note, Walton’s young granddaughter called to ask how she was doing. That was enough to temporarily snap Walton out of her depression.

“That was the thing that brought me back to reality,” she said.

But it’s not clear how, or when, things will get better for Walton, who was laid off from her job at a Salisbury doctor’s office in August 2009.

She and her husband exhausted all their savings long ago, and whittled their expenses down to the bare minimums – their mortgage payments, lights, food and medicine. Meals now consist of little more than a peanut butter or tuna sandwich once a day. She expects the bank to begin foreclosure proceedings on their home within the next month.

On Monday, her husband was handed a pink slip at the sawmill company where he worked doing maintenance work on the machinery. On top of the paycheck the job brought, the job meant health insurance for him, necessary after he suffered a heart attack several years ago. His six medicines, with insurance, were costing the couple $300 a month.

“I just feel like I’m in a deep hole and someone keeps piling dirt on me,” Walton said.

Walton’s been through lay-offs before. Both she and her husband worked at the Pillowtex plant, whose sudden 2003 shut-down was the largest in the state’s history. The couple wiped out their retirement savings then, forced to cash out their 401(k)s to pay the high cost for COBRA medical insurance after her husband’s heart attack. She went back to school, became a medical assistant and began working at a doctor’s office making $40,000-a-year and grateful to be employed again.

But the doctor’s patients, laid off during the recent Great Recession from their own manufacturing jobs at the nearly Freightliner and Philip Morris plants, stopped being able to afford trips to the doctor and Walton lost her job in August 2009.

She said she’s stopped at every fast food, gas station, convenience and grocery store near her and applied for jobs. She’s even put in to be a barmaid at local taverns. She makes $50 a week at a neighbor’s equestrian farm grooming horses and shoveling stalls.

That money goes to gas for her car and a book of stamps she buys each week to send out resumes.

None of the applications she’s put in have panned out.

“To me minimum wage right now is better than no wage,” she said.

She spends her time applying for jobs, and volunteering with both the American Heart Association and the American Red Cross. She got a call this week from a church group she’s active with, and is headed to Joplin, Mo. this weekend to see what help and aid she can give to tornado victims there.

It’ll help get her mind off her own crisis. While away tending to the victims of the Midwest storms, she hopes those in power in the state will feel fit to help her.

“I just pray for y’all,” she says about state legislators. “I just pray that God will touch your heart.”

Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or [email protected].


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Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few, former Investigative Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch for five years, conducted investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance. Ovaska-Few was also staff writer and reporter for six years with the News & Observer in Raleigh, where she reported on governmental, legal, political and criminal justice issues.