Harold Thomas of Sandy has been unemployed for more than one year, and his jobless benefits are running out. His wife had to stop working because of health problems. His employer-sponsored health care coverage? Long gone.
"In 35 years, I've never been out of work this long," said Thomas, a 59-year-old plumber and pipe fitter who has worked on construction projects along the Wasatch Front.
Thomas was among a couple dozen people attending a prayer vigil Thursday for Utah families struggling with unemployment. The hourlong event was held at the Union Labor Center, 2261 S. Redwood Road.
It featured a number of speakers, including Thomas, union members and representatives of social service and religious organizations that provide assistance to those in need. All spoke of the hardship many families in Utah are enduring amid one of the deepest and longest downturns the state has ever seen. Those in attendance lighted candles and observed a moment of silence in recognition of those who remain unemployed.
The gathering, sponsored by the Utah AFL-CIO, also was designed to draw attention to the fact that Congress has not acted to extend federal unemployment benefits, which are set to expire at year's end.
Thomas, for example, will see his unemployment checks stop by January if Congress doesn't act. He says he understands that extending benefits costs money. But he said an extension is the only thing separating his family, and many other Utahns, from disaster.
He said he knows many people who have been out of work in other economic downturns, but this time around they have been jobless for longer periods than ever before. Others have been rehired for less than they were making before they were laid off.
"This downturn is different from any that we've experienced," he said.
Jim Judd, president of Utah's AFL-CIO, said if Congress doesn't act to extend unemployment benefits, it could spur another round of foreclosures and homelessness. Many representatives of social service organizations at the event Thursday said their assistance programs are already overwhelmed.
Dennis Kelsch, director of the St. Vincent de Paul Resource Center, said demand for his organization's food pantry reached a record high in November.
"We helped 412 families typically we're providing assistance to about 150 to 200," he said, noting that his organization's rental assistance program can help only a fraction of those who need it. "There are so many families who are just one step away from eviction."
Because Utah's economy generally is faring better than other states, many construction workers are coming to the Beehive State looking for work, increasing competition for any available positions.
Many of the speakers at Thursday's event noted that although parts of Utah's economy are on the mend, they have yet to see signs of improvement.
Rev. W. Lee Shaw of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in West Valley City said his community has been hit hard by the downturn.
"Almost every week, I hear about another layoff or pay cut."
Facebook: Facebook.com/One Cheap Chick