Job applicants line up at a new Target store in Albuquerque
When Congress reconvenes next week, lawmakers will have to decide whether to extend federal unemployment benefits for about 1.3 million Americans. These emergency benefits—which Congress let expire shortly after Christmas—are part of a 2008 program that allows workers who have been out of the job for more than six months to receive an emergency extension on their payments up to 47 weeks. If Congress fails to renew these benefits, only a quarter of jobless Americans will be receiving any benefits at all, according to the Huffington Post.
As these charts show, the United States is looking at the worst long-term unemployment crisis since soup kitchen lines peaked during the Great Depression. Americans who have been unemployed for more than six months are often hit with major financial and personal hardship. Around 10 percent must file for bankruptcy, more than half report putting off medical care, and many say they have, "lost self-respect while jobless." But who are these Americans who have lost their benefits? Some reached out to Mother Jones. Here are their stories:
Name: Anonymous State: New York
"My benefits run out this week. I'm thoroughly petrified…I am the nice girl you went to high school with who was in the advanced classes, graduated with an A average, and went on to college. I'm the girl who always worked through high school, college, law school, and grad school. I never thought I would end up a welfare mother, but here I am. I want you to know how I got here and why I can't get out. I want you to realize that your nasty comments on social media about the losers demanding entitlements and benefits and hand-outs as compared to your 'hard-earned money,' hurt more than you know. Those comments may also be hurting your friend or colleague or relative. I'm not alone in this situation. I do not want benefits, or hand-outs, or entitlements. I want a job. I want to be able to pay my own way. I want to be self-sufficient again and earn the money I receive through hard work. I don't want to lose my house or have to talk to another debt collector. But in the meantime, I am grateful that some of our lawmakers saw fit to protect the vulnerable in times of need."
Maureen "Momo" Kallins
Name: Maureen "Momo" Kallins State: Washington
"I am 65 years old. For three years I worked as the General Manager and the Business Manager of a small public access television station in Washington State. I lost that job in January 2013, which supported half of our household. (I have two sons, 26 and 24, and I live with my husband.) I was awarded unemployment insurance of less than half of my salary that month, which was extended after six months. I have applied for numerous jobs but never even get an interview. A friend of mine in the film business said recently, 'When you apply for a job at 50 people laugh at you. When you apply for a job at 65 people just look at you like you are crazy.' Presently I am adding to my video resume and trying to build a business. I sincerely hope that the members of Congress can agree to extend these benefits and throw us a lifeline."
Name: Carol Watterston State: Nevada
"After being laid off after seven years [at my job], I have now been unemployed since November 9, 2012. I job hunt for full-time employment everyday. I've been to multiple interviews and nothing has worked out. I've even attempted going back to school but I have bad credit and can't afford it…I'm already struggling to pay my rent, my bills, my car insurance and feed myself and my pets. I have never been one that expects or wants any kind of charity, and this situation I'm in is degrading and shameful, but I have to do whatever is necessary for survival. However, I have a lot more than other people on this planet. I have a roof over my head, I have food in my fridge, I have a car, and I have a very supportive family, which I'm thoroughly thankful for."
Name: Tara Dublin State: Washington
"I was a very popular DJ on the radio in Portland. When I lost that job, I could not find another job in local media. The radio station that fired me has not replaced me. As a single mom of two sons (15 and 10 years old), it was imperative to me that I show my kids that we don't roll over and die when bad things happen; we fight. And I've been fighting for the last four and half years. In the time since I lost that dream job, I've had small opportunities, but nothing long term. I'll get a voiceover gig just when a bill is due…I worked holiday retail sales at Nordstrom but wasn't rehired for this season, and despite applying for every retail and waitressing job I can find, I have yet to be hired. I'm on the verge of losing my house yet again, and I am terrified, I don't ask for a lot out of life—just to be in a job that makes me happy and pays my bills."
"I lost my marketing communications specialist position in April and have not landed a job in nine months of looking, despite working at it diligently and investing in expensive job-hunt strategy and technique classes. I am 61. I believe my age and the reasonably good salary I was earning were factors in losing my job. I was replaced by a 20-something who could be paid a lower salary. I just do not get the assertion I see in so many news stories that eventually, long-term unemployed people just stop looking for work. Who can afford to do that? How can they live?"
Name: Jeff State: Indiana
"I have an associate degree in hotel and restaurant administration. Right now I live in an old mobile home in pretty bad condition, but at least it is a sheltering place. I do not have a high standard of living, so really my only worry about not having a job and losing my unemployment benefits is becoming homeless. I only have rent, car payment and insurance, utilities, and food as expenses. I also worry about my three cats because I don't want to see them suffer because of what is happening to me. I have pretty much been taking care of myself since I was 13, and the thought of not having a roof over my head is terrifying…I do think Congress needs to extend benefits, because people are suffering and it would be a catastrophe to let all those who are hurting slip even lower."
Name: Anonymous State: Washington
"I had a baby in July 2012. I was on unpaid maternity leave until November 2012. I was informed that I would be getting laid off in October 2012. I was in a unionized position but I got bumped by a more senior union member. We had insurance through my work. So we went on COBRA for $1800 a month. The unemployment benefits extension was covering the COBRA payment. Now we'll be paying for COBRA out of pocket. And we have another baby on the way. I know I'm one of the lucky ones out there. I have enough in savings and an overall family income that I can make a choice to stay with the expensive COBRA, so that I don't have to deal with this hassle [of changing to Medicaid] mid-pregnancy."
And here are some stories from other news outlets:
David Davis, Virginia: "That’s one goal, to avoid living on the street or in my car." (The New York Times )
Adaline Irizarry, New Jersey: "If I don’t get an extension, I’m screwed. I think a lot of people are in that situation." (The Star-Ledger)
Celeste, New York: "I don’t buy books; I get everything from the library. We go to maybe one movie a year." (Buzzfeed)
Kaitlyn Smith, California: "I have to keep the house at 55 degrees even though I have two little girls, ages 2 1/2 and 1 1/2." (Los Angeles Times)
Mary Lowe, Ohio: "We didn't do anything for Christmas—50 bucks for our daughter, that was it." (CBS News)
Last month, Mother Jones reported that the Food and Drug Administration had approved a powerful new painkiller called Zohydro over the objections of its advisory board, which voted 11-2 against approving the drug. Now Attorneys General from 28 states (and the US territory of Guam) have asked the FDA to reconsider its approval of Zohydro. In a letter to the agency, the AGs raise many of the same concerns that the advisory panel did, noting that the drug lacks adequate safeguards to prevent it from being abused and could exacerbate America's epidemic of painkiller deaths. Here's an excerpt from the AGs letter, which was dated December 10:
State Attorneys General do not want a repeat of the recent past when potent prescription painkilling drugs entered the market without abuse-deterrent qualities and without clear guidance on how they were to be prescribed. This created an environment whereby our nation witnessed a vicious cycle of overzealous pharmaceutical sales, doctors over-prescribing the narcotics, and patients tampering with these drugs, ultimately resulting in a nationwide prescription drug epidemic claiming thousands of lives.
Zohydro, which is made by a company called Zogenix, is five to ten times stronger than Vicodin, making it very similar in potency to OxyContin, a widely abused prescription drug that has contributed to the tens of thousands of painkiller-related deaths in the United States. OxyContin, however, now includes a gel that prevents the drug from being crushed and snorted. Zohydro was approved without that measure. Zogenix has entered into a $750,000 agreement with a Montreal-based company, Altus Formulation Inc, to help make the drug abuse-deterrent, but it's unclear whether the formula will be ready by the time Zohydro hits the market in a few months.
The Attorneys General don't think that's sufficient. "We hope that the FDA either reconsiders its approval of Zohydro ER, or sets a rigorous timeline for Zohydro ER to be reformulated to be abuse-deterrent while working with other federal agencies to impose restrictions on how Zohydro ER can be marketed and prescribed," they wrote in their letter.
The result aren't pretty. Many workers lack basic knowledge about food safety, don't wash their hands enough, and serve undercooked meat. Employees commonly show up to work when they're vomiting, because they fear losing pay and leaving the restaurant understaffed. As we reported in June, a number of states have introduced bills that prevent localities from passing laws that require paid sick leave—and they're backed by big restaurant chains, including McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Olive Garden. (Is it any wonder that struggling restaurant workers are going on strike?) Restaurant employees working sick is "an important cause of foodborne illness outbreaks," say the researchers.
So, without further ado, here are eight of the most terrifying statistics from the new reports:
1. Nearly two-thirds of restaurant workers who handle raw beef aren't washing their hands afterward: The researchers looked at 247 restaurantsthat use raw ground beef. Employees touched the beef in 192 restaurants, and in 119 of those restaurants, employees who touched the raw beef with their bare hands didn't wash them before touching other cooked food. That means that the pathogens from the raw beef—particularly E. coli, which causes more than 61,000 illnesses and 20 deaths a year—could spread from the beef to the cooked food leaving the kitchen.
2. About 40 percent of restaurants don't usually use separate cutting boards for raw chicken: That's according to the 448 kitchen managers the CDC interviewed in both independent and chain restaurants. About 25 percent of managers also said they don't often use disposable gloves when handling chicken.
3. Most managers don't know the safe cooking temperature for chicken: In that same group of 448 kitchen managers, only 194 knew the FDA-recommended cooking temperature for raw chicken (165 degrees Fahrenheit). About a quarter of the managers underestimated the correct temperature, and 33 admitted they had no clue. (Incredibly, one manager actually guessed 90 degrees—lower than a normal human body temperature. We hope he or she was thinking in Celsius.)
4. Almost half of chefs don't use a thermometer to make sure a burger is cooked: Out of 385 restaurants, the managers in 190 of them said that they "never" used thermometers to check when a burger was done, instead determining doneness by color or feel.
5 …and as a result, a bunch of burgers are coming out raw: CDC inspectors found that 12 percent of the 234 hamburgers they tested were undercooked (less than 155 degrees Fahrenheit). When customers ordered a burger medium-rare, that number rose significantly: 40 percent of those burgers were undercooked.
6. 40 percent of sick food workers didn't go home because they have no sick leave: Of 491 food workers, more than half said they had worked a shift while ill. One hundred twenty-seven of those workers indicated that they did so because they had no paid sick leave or sick leave policy. According to the CDC, a lot of these workers also didn't want to leave their coworkers short-staffed: "Social and personal concerns appear more likely to guide workers' decisions" than pay, the researchers wrote.
7. Seriously. The cook is vomiting: In that same group of workers,20 percent said they were vomiting or had diarrhea on at least one shift in 2012, and 12 percent indicated that they had those symptoms for at least two shifts.
8. Vegetarians aren't off the hook: Out of 37 "leafy green" shipments—like lettuce or spinach—almost half were not delivered at the recommended temperature of 41 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the CDC, keeping greens stored above that temperature promotes the growth of germs. Fortunately, two out of three managers at 411 restaurants said they had rejected a greens shipment because the produce was rotten or too warm.
Last month, I collected reports from voters across the United States who had trouble casting a ballot because of the growing number of strict voter identification laws. When Ben Granger, an Air Force captain who was deployed during the 2012 presidential election read the piece, he came forward with his own story—about the time he was turned away from voting for the US president by a conservative county in Texas, after mailing his ballot from a war zone.
Texas has come under fire for its new law requiring poll workers to apply extra scrutiny to voters' state identification, in a way that potentially discriminates against married women. Although voter ID laws garner the most attention for turning voters away from the polls—longstanding laws in Texas and other states still require election boards to use a voter's signature to verify absentee ballots.
Granger, who was deployed for seven months in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan in 2012, says he's voted in every presidential election since he turned 18. But after he sent his absentee ballot to Tom Green County, Texas, to vote in the 2012 general election, he received a rejection notice claiming that his vote was discarded because his signature on the ballot application and the signature on the ballot's envelope were signed by different people:
"I was surprised and aggravated," says Granger, who, having spent four and a half years on active duty, now lives in Belleville, Illinois, supporting U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command on active reserve. "As the guy that requested the ballot, carefully looked over the candidates, carefully signed the envelope and the ballot with a good pen, and then walked across my base to the post office to mail it personally, the rejection was insulting."
Under Texas law, in order to vote by absentee ballot, a voter must sign a ballot application, and then after receiving the ballot some weeks later, must sign the sealed ballot's carrier envelope. In Tom Green County—where 73 percent of residents cast a vote for Mitt Romney last November—the law allows a county to appoint a five-person board tasked with deciding, by majority vote, whether the two signatures match (they can even request to see the voter's registration signature). In Granger's case, they claimed that the application and the ballot envelope were signed by different people. He adds that while he doesn't specifically remember signing the application before successfully receiving his ballot about six weeks later, "I was pretty busy at the time...I [always] sign my name the same way."
This law is much older—more than a decade—than the one requiring that poll workers make sure a voter's driver's license "substantially" matches the name on the voter registration. Marian Schneider, an attorney with the Advancement Project, a voting rights group, says that "every state has a process where they compare a voter's signature with another signature on file"—even if you vote in person—and she doesn't necessarily consider that a barrier to voting, in the way that voter ID laws are. But she notes that incidents of people committing fraud and forging signatures are nonetheless, "exceedingly rare."
Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for True the Vote, which argues that voter fraud is common, says that checking signatures is a good way to stop a criminal from "purchasing a ballot in a military installation and sending it on someone else's behalf." (There were only 13 credible cases of in-person voter impersonation between 2000 and 2010.) Churchwell doubts Granger's claim of voter suppression.
But Doug Chapin, the director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the University of Minnesota, says that barring people from voting because their signatures don't match "is a growing problem in the field" and "an issue that’s increasingly on the radar." While every state has a different process for verifying signatures, "This example is definitely at the stricter end," he says. Rick Hasen, a voting expert and law professor at the University of California, Irvine, agrees that, "signature matching has been studied and it is not a perfect system." (Kansas has done away with it entirely, allowing voters to enter a verification number, such as a driver's license or social security number, instead.)
Granger says that if the Election Board truly thought someone had stolen his ballot envelope or application, "isn't that cause for the launch of a criminal investigation?" Vona McKerley, the election administer in Tom Green County, tells Mother Jones that "several" ballots were turned away in last year's election because of non-matching signatures. "The ballot board was following the law as prescribed in processing the ballots. No, there was no investigation."
Granger is, nonetheless, concerned that this is just another way to disenfranchise voters: "I am a young educated military officer and I know how to sign my own name for God's sake. And even if I didn't, is poor penmanship good cause for disenfranchisement? What about the elderly whose hands may shake?"
Foreigners applying to permanently live in the United States spend years, sometimes decades, waiting to receive their green cards. But when that visa finally arrives, some law-abiding immigrants have to choose between emigrating to America and staying back with their children—all because their young sons and daughters became adults during the lengthy process. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court is expected to hear a case, Mayorkas v. Cuellar de Osorio, that could have a big effect on whether some applicants who turned 21 during the US visa process are allowed to immigrate at the same time as their parents, rather than being bumped all the way to the back of the line.
"I hope the Supreme Court will show common sense and realize that if a mother applied for a visa when her children were clearly minors, she could not have predicted that it would take so long," says Richard Alba, an immigration expert and sociology professor at the Graduate Center, CUNY. "The kind of conservative notion that undocumented immigrations are law-breakers really doesn't apply at all here."
One of the case's named plaintiffs is RosalinaCuellar de Osorio, who applied for a visa in 1998 to join her mother, who is a US citizen. At the time, Cuellar de Osorio's son was 13. The visa application only took a month to be approved—but a visa didn't become available until 2005, after her son, Melvin, had turned 21. (US law dictates that only a certain number of visas may be issued per country in a fiscal year.) She was able to emigrate from El Salvador, but the government would not issue an immediate visa for Melvin because he was no longer a child.
Under the 2002 Child Status Protection Act, children who turn 21 during the application process are supposed to "retain the original priority date issued upon receipt of the original petition"—which prevents kids like Melvin from being moved to the back of the visa line just because of their birth date. But in 2009, the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled differently—arguing that the original law wasn't very clear and could be interpreted to only apply to certain categories of visas—like those that are filed by a lawful permanent resident on behalf of his or her spouse and children—but not necessarily those filed by US citizens. The board maintains that if the law starts applying to everyone, it will "undermine the perception of fairness of the rules" and introduce "tensions" among immigrants.
The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in September 2012 that the immigration board was wrong because it failed to take into account Congress's intent behind the law: That lawmakers never intended for the petitioner's visa category to factor into the decision-making process. A bipartisan group of lawmakers who were serving when the original law passed in 2002—including Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.), Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)—filed a brief on November 4, 2013, backing up that position: "The Solicitor General's continuing insistence that that the [law] is ambiguous raises serious institutional concerns...[Congress] does not typically give an agency carte blanche to rewrite statutory language that is clear."
The Supreme Court isn't the only branch taking up this issue—the Senate's mammoth immigration reform bill, which still hasn't passed the House, would also fix this problem. Alba, the immigration professor, says, "This is a committee within the immigrations board that made a bad decision, so the question is now, can it be reversed?" The American Immigration Council notes that the current policy "has been heartbreaking for too many individuals," and that countless immigrants sit in limbo until the issue is resolved. An Iranian applicant who goes by the initials K.M.K., for example, waited with his family for 12 years to get a visa before being bumped because he turned 21. He's still in Iran, separated from his family, and waiting.