SALT LAKE CITY — With more than 13 million people jobless in the United States, prayer vigils across the nation on Dec. 8 urged Congress to extend unemployment insurance benefits. In Salt Lake City, the prayer vigil for the unemployed was held at the Union Labor Center. Speakers included Nicole Dunn, deputy mayor of Salt Lake County; Harold Thomas, an unemployed worker; and representatives of various religions. Jim Judd, president of Utah AFL-CIO, gave the opening and closing remarks.
"Finding employment and the necessary resources to care for our families is very tough right now," Dunn said. "Currently there are nearly five workers actively searching for every job available, compared to just 1.5 job searchers for a job opening before the great recession began. Allowing unemployment benefits to expire amid such a weak labor market would have serious implications for the unemployed as well as every one of us who has a job."
During the past three years, more than 17 million Americans have received federally funded unemployment insurance, which provides up to 53 weeks of benefits. Almost 45 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for at least six months, and if Congress doesn’t extend the insurance program, an estimated 1.8 million people will run out of their benefits in January.
Dennis Kelsch, Basic Needs Services director for Catholic Community Services, sees firsthand the effects of unemployment. Two years ago, CCS’ Saint Vincent de Paul soup kitchen served 600 to 800 lunches daily. Now they serve 800 to 1,100, "and the section of the dining room that we set aside for families has grown a great deal," he said. "There are a lot more children."
The saddest scenario is middle-aged workers who have lost their jobs, he said in an interview after the vigil. "These people are coming to get food from our pantry and it’s embarrassing [for them.] They’ve always taken care of their family. It’s like someone punched them in the gut."
Deacon Moises Ruiz, who is assigned to Saint Francis of Assisi Parish in Orem, was another speaker at the vigil. A union worker, he said in an interview that most of those in his local have been lucky enough to have work, but with the coming of winter they may be laid off and hope to receive unemployment benefits until they get another job.
As a deacon, he counsels many people whose marriages are affected by joblessness, he said in the interview. "They don’t have money for the bills so the problem is they start breaking apart, and that’s sad," he said.
To help the unemployed, Catholics can ask their senators and representatives in Washington to extend the unemployment benefits and urge them to support efforts to put people back to work, said Jean Hill, government liaison for the diocese. "Our belief is very clear that we support the rights of workers, we support the rights of workers to organize and we certainly support the rights of workers to organize, advocate and gather in prayer over their rights, their situation," she said. "We care about the poor. These are workers who are out of work and they are looking at their benefits expiring right after Christmas. That’s something we deeply care about as a Church."
Kelsch, whose office is across from the Gateway, said at night he often leaves people who come for meals in the soup kitchen and pulls out next to a car that costs $55,000. He thinks, "‘Oh, my God, how incongruous is this world,’" he said. "I realize there is always going to people who have more money than other people … but for the gap to be so wide is crazy."