By Eileen AJ Connelly -- AP Personal Finance Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — It's a concern for millions of people, including many who take part in the support group for the unemployed that Jeff D. Brown helps run at his Phoenix church.
What do you do when your unemployment benefits run out?
"I've had those discussions with quite a few people," said Brown, who serves as managing director of the group, ACT2009. "It's taking them longer to find positions in this environment, so it's more likely their benefits are going to run out."
Federal statistics showed the unemployment rolls shrank a bit last week for the first time in months. But there was some indication that the decline partly reflected people dropping off because they had exhausted their benefits after being out of work for 26 weeks or more, not because they found jobs.
In fact, government figures show that in the 12 months ending in May, about 49 percent of the people receiving unemployment insurance ran out of benefits before they got new jobs.
Some have been able to extend their checks for 20 to 33 weeks, depending on their states, under emergency provisions authorized by Congress. Statistics show about 2.4 million people fall in that category now. Still, with the national unemployment rate at 9.4 percent, many people use up extended benefits with few job prospects in sight.
There's no easy answer for what to do when that happens.
"If they've run out of their benefits, there's a good likelihood they'd be eligible for benefits for retraining," said Nichole Ossa, an employment and training specialist at WorkSource Thurston County in Tumwater, Wash. But while training programs can help prepare people to switch careers, they can't put food on the table or keep the lights on.
"I can't think of a single program that offers a living stipend," she said. "There's the rub there, because even if you can get support for the costs of training, you've still got to eat."
Ideally, people who lose their jobs will assess their situation long before the money runs out. But at any stage of the unemployment process, there are steps you can take to conserve resources, and some help available if you search for it.
"We always talk about trimming the fat when you get caught up in a situation like this," said Joseph Montanaro, a financial planner with USAA. "Certainly, when you're nearing the end of benefits, it's time to trim a little closer to the bone."
If you haven't already cut all unnecessary spending, it's time to review where the money is going. Gym memberships, cell phone service and cable television may all have to be sacrified until there's income coming in, said Patricia Seaman of the National Endowment for Financial Education.
She also suggested reviewing insurance policies and perhaps increasing deductibles to lower costs. But she warned not to cancel insurance policies. "You don't want to leave your family unprotected, because you're vulnerable when you're unemployed," she said.
Manage credit and debt
Credit cards may become an important resource for someone out of work for an extended period, so it's important to keep up with payments and resist using credit as much as possible.
If you think you might miss a payment — or you already have — don't try to avoid the bank, Seaman said. A phone call to the card issuer may allow you to reach a deal that can help you through the crisis. Some banks may be willing to accept interest-only payments, for instance, or arrange for payments to be reduced or suspended on a temporary basis.
For people afraid they won't be able to pay their mortgages, Seaman said, federal programs may help. If you haven't yet missed a payment, the Obama administration's Making Home Affordable program might be able to help with refinancing. If you have already fallen behind, the HOPE Now can help negotiate an agreement with your mortgage company.
Under both programs, counseling is free. Visit www.makinghomeaffordable.gov or www.hopenow.com for details on each program.
Reach out for help
While the safety net is small, there are public and private programs that can help families through difficult times.
Free lunch programs may be available for school-age children. In some states, these programs are available even during summer break, and can provide at least one nutritious meal to kids each day.
Food stamps are another option. The income cap for food stamps varies by state and by family size, but a record 32.5 million people are now receiving the assistance. Monthly benefits range between $16 to $588, with the average is about $111. To find out if you're eligible, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture Web site at www.fns.usda.gov/FSP/ or call 1-800-221-5689.
Those unwilling to accept donated food from food pantries may find low-cost food assistance programs like Angel Food Ministries or the SHARE Food Network easier. The programs, which have no eligibility requirements, offer boxes of groceries, including meat and vegetables, for half or less what it would cost in a grocery store. Distribution is done through host sites, typically churches and community centers. Call 1-888-819-3745 or visit www.angelfoodministries.com for more details on Angel Food. SHARE, a smaller network, has sites scattered from coast to coast, but no central office. Links to other programs can be found at the Washington, D.C., affiliate's site, www.sharedc.org, or call 1-800-21-SHARE.
Health care help
Help with prescription drugs and other health care costs may be available through state or charitable programs. NeedyMeds.org, a private charitable group, and pparx.org, which is funded by pharmaceutical companies, can help with drug costs. State government Web sites are good places to start looking for low-cost health insurance programs, particularly for children.
Military veterans who did not qualify for health care from the Veterans Administration when they were working may now find they meet hardship requirements. Details are available at www.va.gov or by calling 1-877-222-8387.
Some insurance companies offer lower-cost, short-term health insurance plans that last for one to six months, and are designed to provide a bridge between longer term plans, like those offered by employers. The plans typically have deductibles of about $2,500 to $5,000, said Ellen Laden, a spokeswoman for UnitedHealthcare's individual business. They cover major medical costs, and some cover doctor visits, prescription drugs and preventive care, but consumers must shop around. And they have to reapply for the coverage each time their short-term plan expires.
Get some income
If you've resisted selling personal possessions until this point, it may be time to bite the bullet and pick between needs and wants. Boats, ATVs, personal watercraft and even the family's second car can bring in larger amounts than smaller items, noted Seaman, of NEFE. But that doesn't preclude a traditional garage sale or selling other possessions online.
Professionals who have been focused on finding full-time work may have not considered contract or freelance work, but that could provide both a short-term income source and future connections.
Temporary jobs often pick up before the rest of the economy, as businesses seek help but don't want to commit to permanent employees. George Corona, chief operating officer of temp agency Kelly Services Inc., said the number of temp jobs are still declining, but the rate of decline has slowed. But some areas, like education, health care, science and engineering fields aren't as problematic. And Corona said it's not uncommon for temporary employees to be hired to permanent spots, if they make a positive impression.
If cash is tight, it's time "swallow your ego," and take whatever work you can find, said Larry Winget, an author and speaker who appears throughout the country, and frequently refers to his own out-of-work experiences.
"Most people that I've talked to are waiting around for jobs, or waiting for a career, or something to replace what they had on an equal basis," he said. "There's always work to be found if you're willing to do anything. It's all about your willingness."
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