By the end of this year, 99,000 people in Michigan will have exhausted their unemployment benefits. With the economy expected to remain in recession well into 2010, state social workers are expecting few to find jobs.
Social workers are bracing for a statewide 'tsunami' of new cases, really picking up by late summer.
Once people have been out of work long enough, eventually they're no longer eligible for monthly unemployment checks. If someone can't find a job then, the next stop might be a visit to social workers with the state Department of Human Services.
Dawn McLaughlin runs the state DHS office for Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties, and she says the lobby has already been swamped.
"There are so many people coming in here, I mean at one point we had people sitting on the floors," she says.
The lobby in the State Office building in Traverse City was recently expanded. An extra help window was added, as well as a "take a number" system. They also bumped out a wall and added a Dr. Seuss-themed children's play area.
And this crisis has yet to really hit. Three people last month ran out of unemployment checks, 10 people are expected to this month. But by the fall the numbers increase more than 10-fold.
113 people exhaust their unemployment benefits in Grand Traverse County sometime between August 24th and September 18th. The following month 132, then 120, and from November 13th to December 16th, 140 people will be cut off.
And the problem is statewide. DHS has been crunching numbers with the unemployment office. Every month this fall, more than 18,000 Michiganders will loose their unemployment.
In May the total was less than 500 statewide.
Sharon Christensen is in charge of Cash Assistance for DHS, which could provide a small amount of monthly cash for some people who run out of unemployment. But she says it's hard to know what benefits displaced Michigan workers would qualify for, whether it's that, or help with food, or one-time emergency help with utilities, or rent.
"Some of these households may have a second income, they may have assets. Some may be able to find other, alternative employment opportunities, but I know that it's a struggle out there," Christensen says.
If people do want help, they'll likely face long lines, and frazzled state workers. Christensen says local offices are already struggling to give timely help. In many cases, and many programs, expect more than 30 days. Workers already have record-high caseloads.
It's not just this safety net that will be taxed as more and more Michiganders are out-of-work long term. Friend of the Court is also bracing for a big influx of parents who can no longer afford court-ordered Child Support payments.
And it'll be busy for the state office that helps job seekers as well, especially if there's a lot of people looking to get monthly cash assistance payments. Because of reforms in the 1990s known as "Welfare to Work," anyone getting help has to prove they're working, or getting job skills.
By now, most everyone is aware the state budget is in crisis. Back in the Traverse City State Office Building, the hall lights are only illuminated during particularly gloomy, rainy days. And Dawn McLaughlin says each of her workers is trying to keep up with more than 600 cases.
On top of that, they're in the middle of learning a new computer system. It should be better in the long run. But in the mean time every task takes longer, clients are confused by it, social workers are getting more calls, and some workers have been close to tears.
"And we're just trying to work through it. And it's not because they feel like they're overworked. It's because they feel like they can't - when they're learning a new system - they can't learn it fast enough to help the people that are in such desperate need of help," McLaughlin says.
In the lobby, Penny Kibby nervously waits for some explanation as to why her food assistance has been cut back by 10 dollars a month. It may not seem like a crisis, but it is to her. She's on disability and doesn't have much money to play with.
"And that 10 dollars could've went for food and it's like people don't care is what is seems like to me. That's how I feel anyway," she says.
Kibby is polite, talking with workers here. But she came into the office because it flusters her to talk with her worker over the phone. And all she can do here is to call upstairs and leave a message.
Behind the glass, more often than not Denise Henderson finds herself asking people for patience, and apologizing.
"I do worry about the timeliness of being able to help people. We like to be able to answer the phone quickly, be able to help people immediately, but that's not always the case. So, I get I do get a little apologetic," she says.
This is Henderson's first day job in 10 years, and she says she's jumped into a battlefield. "They're already a little bit defensive and they want answers and they want immediate results because their lives are in the balance. Things are not good for them. So, my position, I feel, is to help diffuse the situation, give them other options, let them know that a caring person is here to help."
Even though workers here are flooded, and only expecting to get busier, they say there are a lot of people in Northern Michigan who would qualify for some help now, but haven't asked for it. They encourage anyone who might be balancing bills or making tough decisions, for example, between a trip to the doctor and groceries, to at least go online and take a look their options.