PITTSBURGH — Her rent is due March 1, and Sheri Minkoff's main concern right now is where the money will come from.
Minkoff has been unable to find a full-time job since she was laid off in January 2013 from a Pittsburgh-area domestic violence shelter where she had worked for about three years as an events coordinator.
Unemployment checks helped Minkoff survive her second layoff in five years, but the benefits ran out Dec. 28 when Congress failed to extend payments for the long-term unemployed — people who have been jobless for 27 weeks or more.
"What am I going to do when my rent is due? I won't have a place to sleep; I'm not being sarcastic — that's the truth," says Minkoff, 50, of Shadyside, who has searched for work without much luck.
She is one of an estimated 1.7 million long-term unemployed people nationwide and one of 91,000 in Pennsylvania — a number that is growing weekly — who lost their main source of income when their extended benefits expired in December.
Their plight underscores the difficulty many Americans are facing as the economy recovers from the 2008 Great Recession. The job market improved haltingly. The national unemployment rate is at 6.6 percent, but employment has struggled to get back to pre-recession levels. And some who have been out of work for a long time, such as Minkoff, are struggling to get rehired.
"People are not answering phones or replying to resumes," says Minkoff. "It's a daily effort, a combination of annoying your friends on Facebook, sending emails, going to the various websites you're supposed to go to. You're told, 'Do not call. Do not submit a letter.' There's no personal contact."
Total long-term unemployed of 3.6 million represents more than one-third of the 10.2 million out of work across the country. In Pennsylvania, the percentage is higher. About 40 percent of the unemployed were out of work for six months or more in September, the latest figures available.
President Obama has made helping them a priority. During his State of the Union address last month, he revealed an initiative to reform training and education programs. He received pledges from 300 companies, including Alcoa, Apple, American Airlines, Ford and General Motors, to give the long-term unemployed a "fair shot" at a job.
But that's not an immediate help for Minkoff. She is in a panic over how to pay her everyday living expenses and her son's college expenses without a job.
Aron, 20, a sophomore at Temple University, is attending school on grants and student loans.
"My debt grows every day as I struggle to pay the telephone and utility bills," says Minkoff, who has raised her son by herself since a divorce when he was young.
Minkoff won't say how much she received weekly in unemployment benefits but she said it was just enough to pay her rent — "nothing else — not food, utilities, college, haircuts, medication or anything you need, not gas or eating out."
State benefits average $350 weekly and extended payments for the long-term unemployed, which kick in when those are exhausted, average $250.
The extended benefits have been caught up in Washington politics. On Feb. 5, the Senate blocked an effort to renew emergency unemployment insurance. Obama and Democrats pushed for an extension, arguing that people still needed help because the job market and economy have not fully recovered. Republicans wanted spending cuts to offset the impact on the federal deficit.
Pennsylvania's unemployment rate has been improving, but seemingly positive results have masked disappointing signs. The state's jobless rate dropped to 6.9 percent in December from 7.3 percent in November, but it fell because residents stopped looking for work and were not counted as unemployed. Also troubling was that employers shed 11,400 jobs.
Ken Love, 61, of Plum is one of those still looking for work. He was laid off in April from Light of Life Rescue Mission on the North Side, where he worked since 2009 as an employment coordinator, helping others to get jobs. He said he has about 20 resumes out, but hasn't heard anything, thinking his age might be working against him.
Love's primary skill is as a tool and die maker, which he used at former General Motors' Fisher Body plant in West Mifflin for 25 years. He left in 2006. He says his vision was to devote his time to a second calling: he's the pastor at the Kerr Presbyterian Church in Penn Hills. But membership has declined from 200 about 20 years ago, to about 50 now, so his income is inconsistent.
Love used up his state unemployment benefits, and had just started to receive federal benefits when they expired in December, he said.
"I'm eating up all my savings," Love says. "First thing, we pay the mortgage, before groceries and utilities. Now some bills wait until the second week, and some the third week. We have to rob Peter to pay Paul."
His income includes $600 a month from a GM pension. "I was going to wait until I was 65 but because of my financial situation, I signed up to take it last year," he said.
His wife, Darlene, 59, works as a tax consultant at H&R Block at the Monroeville Mall from Dec. 1 to April 15, earning about $1,000 a month, he said. They have been talking about Darlene finding a summer job this year for the first time.
"I told her to relax," Love said. "I'm going to find a job. I know it. I could go back to a machine shop or work at Home Depot. This is the first time in our life that I haven't worked. Now we've got to start counting pennies."
George Ponticello, a career counselor at the Career Development Center at the Jewish Family & Children's Services of Pittsburgh, said more unemployed have been coming to the center since jobless benefits expired.
"There's more panic, a greater sense of urgency; it's created more stress for a lot of folks," Ponticello said. "The job market has been challenging the last few years. Some people land quickly, some struggle, and it takes them more time. It's not uncommon to be on the market for six months or longer."
Minkoff uses the services at Jewish Family & Children's Services of Pittsburgh, which provides career counseling and help for people who have fallen behind on rent, utility bills and food. She also works part time for the Center for Women in Shadyside.
In March, she moved from a larger apartment in Shadyside to a smaller, two-bedroom unit in a nine-floor apartment building to save money.
Her choices include how much to spend on food and how often to wash clothes or herself, because she tries to limit water use. "Going out for a walk requires more water to wash. ... I can go without a shower every day."
"These are stupid things," she says. "I'm living on cereal and cheese sandwiches; it's really sad."