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Deal would extend unemployment benefits, but some say compromise goes too far

THEY MAY call it a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits, but for Pat McNamara, who's been jobless for nearly two years, the deal would buy her only a few extra weeks.

THEY MAY call it a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits, but for Pat McNamara, who's been jobless for nearly two years, the deal would buy her only a few extra weeks.

The 61-year-old consumer-protection advocate - laid off from a City Hall job during a round of belt-tightening in early 2009 - expects to hit her 99-week limit of eligibility in March or April. In fact, she says she doesn't even want this compromise because the plan also would include tens of billions of dollars in tax cuts for millionaires but no money specifically targeting job creation.

"I believe there is something just not right in putting the tax break for the wealthy up against unemployment insurance," said McNamara, of East Oak Lane. "It doesn't make sense. It doesn't seem like any way to straighten out the economy."

Although advocates may be hailing the tentative deal on extending long-term unemployment benefits - which still needs congressional approval - as a way to keep unemployed Americans on their feet until 2012, the reality for Philadelphians like McNamara looks much, much different.

For one thing, because the economic meltdown and the loss of about eight million jobs peaked in late 2008 and early 2009, many of the unemployed would hit their personal cutoff of 99 weeks long before January 2012, when the program would expire.

What's more, experts are beginning to wonder if a large pool of workers like McNamara - 50 and older and out of the labor market for nearly two years - will ever be able to find work again.

That is a prospect that haunts Donna Johnston of Upper Darby, who is 59 and hasn't worked full time since 2008, even though she holds a master's degree in geography and urban planning from the University of Toledo.

"I had thought I was going to work the rest of my life," said Johnston, sitting in the airy, book-lined front room of her Tudor-style home on Lincoln Avenue, a stone's throw from Monsignor Bonner High, where her husband, Mike, graduated.

She last worked full time, for the Camden County Workforce Investment Board, in June 2008, later taking on part-time work with the Census Bureau and a Democratic get-out-the-vote outfit called Working America. Her roughly $1,700 a month in unemployment benefits was slated to expire this month, but if the new deal passes, the checks will continue until the middle of next year.

In the meantime, her husband, a computer programmer, is not working because of a vision problem that wasn't covered by his firm's long-term disability plan. The couple - who've raised five children, the youngest now in college - stopped making mortgage payments in March and decided that it's cheaper to pay a lawyer to forestall eviction than to pay the loan.

Johnston continues to send out her résumé, although now the urban planner has a less-academic version that she uses to apply for jobs such as hotel-desk clerk, security guard ("The ad said 'no gun,' " she said with a wan smile) and at the nearby Target, where she enters an online application every six months when the old one expires.

"I find being home, sending résumés into black holes and with no clear options for employment or a steady income to be extremely unsettling," Johnston said yesterday. "I have lost faith in the American Dream."

Although their situations are similar, Johnston and McNamara had different reactions to this week's news of the likely unemployment extension - and to President Obama's handling of it. Johnston, who was also angry at lawmakers' "playing politics" with the issue, said she "slept like a rock" for the first time in days when she heard a compromise was in the works.

For McNamara, the compromise was more of a sellout. She had volunteered for a pro-Obama group, Take Back America, this fall, but "now I'm thinking about submitting them a bill. I thought he [Obama] was made of different stuff."