Christy Zemcik used her cell phone this week to call up legislators in Raleigh and beg them to restore the unemployment benefits that she and thousands of others depend upon. In between calls, the 41-year-old former teacher was packing her belongings into boxes after getting an eviction notice from her Charlotte apartment complex.
She doesn’t know where she’ll end up, and is unable to move in with family or pay for a new apartment.
“I really have nowhere to go,” she said. “My life is falling apart in every direction.”
Her pleas to lawmakers haven’t been answered yet, with the state in its third week of a stalemate over the federally-funded benefits for 37,000 jobless North Carolinians.
Earlier in April, the state legislature passed a measure that would have allowed federal dollars to flow through to people like Zemcik, who has been out of work since June 2009. The bill passed by the GOP-controlled legislature also carried a rider that would have made Gov. Bev Perdue agree to deeper cuts to the state budget and state programs if a state budget wasn’t in place by June 30.
Perdue vetoed the bill on April 16, saying it was political ploy and the level of cuts that GOP leaders wanted would harm millions just as the state was starting to emerge from the Great Recession. Perdue has indicated she’ll sign a clean bill and Democrats are trying to bring a clean bill to be voted on, but will need the support of Republicans to get it passed.
The three weeks of sparring in Raleigh have left Zemcik teetering on the edge of financial ruin and frustrated with the inaction in Raleigh.
“My life is not a game,” she said. “And neither are the lives of the 37,000 others and their families who are in the same position.”
Zemcik came to Charlotte in 2006, after leaving a teaching job at an Atlanta middle school. She hoped to establish residency in North Carolina, and then get a master’s in library science to become a school librarian, her lifelong goal. In the meantime, she took on the job at a small doctor’s office in 2006 and worked there up until she was laid off in June 2009.
Since losing her job, Zemcik estimates she’s sent out hundreds of resumes of all types of jobs, using the computer and Internet at the public library near her house to look up job leads. But she rarely hears back, and suspects that employers are bombarded with out-of-work applicants like herself.
“I couldn’t go back into teaching because all the schools were laying off and there were no teaching jobs,” she said. “Sometimes you just feel so beaten down, that no one wants you.”
Zemcik is single, and exhausted her savings long ago. The $416 before-tax unemployment check she gets weekly goes to pay her $626 monthly rent, electricity bills, car insurance, $15 of gas a week and prescriptions she takes for asthma and allergies. She hasn’t had health care for two years, and food consists of a loaf of bread, jar of peanut butter and bag of apples she buys each week. She occasionally splurges by buying celery, she said.
“When you get down to the end like this, and everything you’ve been through, every bit that comes is going to survival,” she said.
Her benefits were set to expire anyway in June, and threw her into a lurch when they suddenly stopped in April, she said. She had hoped to see if she could return to her previous profession as a teacher and wanted to try to take on a roommate or sell her remaining furniture and belongings to tide her over to this fall.
Zemcik is continuing her calls to legislators. But she’s getting little response. She called the office of one GOP leader and spoke to an aide, detailing how hard it’s been to find work and how much the unemployment benefits mean to her survival. After finishing, the aide told her to “have a great day” and ended the call.
It’s that type of reaction that makes Zemcik think her voice isn’t being heard, just like those of the 37,000 others in her predicament.
“This is an issue about people, it’s not about a budget,” she said. “These are actual people and what is being done is such a disgrace. It’s inhuman.”
She’s fighting to be heard in Raleigh while also dealing with the more pressing issues of where to live and how to survive.
On Friday, she’ll be in a Mecklenburg County courtroom to find out if she’ll be evicted from her apartment. Her electricity is supposed to be cut off for non-payment that same day.
She plans to try to sell off her furniture and belongings, all while continuing to send out resumes in hopes that someone will take a chance on her and offer her a job.
Hope and faith, she says, are all she really has left.
“I feel like I’m in the middle of the ocean,” she said. “I’m just trying to be heard, I’m just trying to keep from going under.”
Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or firstname.lastname@example.org.