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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Harold Thomas holds his grandson, Deakon Thomas, 3, during a moment of silence during a prayer vigil for Utah families affected by unemployment at Union Labor Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011. Thomas has been out of work for 14 months and watches his grandchildren while his daughter works.

SALT LAKE CITY — As Harold Thomas stood holding his preschool-aged grandson before a group of fellow union members and the media Thursday, he was a symbol of strength, humility and courage.

It took all three traits to be able tell his story of being 14-months without full-time work — something many Utahns could empathize with, but few would be brave enough to share with such a large audience.

At times, he fought the urge to breakdown, and he kept it together. Not bad for a veteran construction worker with little public speaking experience.

Thomas was one of the speakers at a prayer vigil for the unemployed conducted at the Union Labor Center in Salt Lake City. Members of local labor unions, clergy and supporters lit candles in a symbolic show of solidarity for jobless Utahns and others around the country who face the possibility of losing their benefits by year's end if Congress fails to extend unemployment benefits.

Thomas spoke about how much of a hardship it has been for him not to be able to provide for his family as he collected unemployment to make ends meet.

"Extended emergency unemployment compensation has basically what has saved me," he said fighting back tears. "It's hard to be on unemployment. I've lost my health care, and I'm struggling to keep from losing my home."

According to a statement from the AFL-CIO, if Congress rejects extension nearly 2 million workers could be cut off Dec. 31 as the extended unemployment insurance benefits expire. In Utah, and estimated 4,600 people could lose unemployment benefits in 2012.

The average weekly benefit for an unemployed worker on the federal extension is about $297, which amounts to only half of the income needed to cover the most basic necessities of food, housing and transportation, as measured by the annual Consumer Expenditure Survey, the statement said. In Utah, the average weekly benefit was $317.45.

Nationally, the unemployment rate has hovered at or near 9 percent, but the situation is worse for some minority groups — with African Americans at 11.4 percent, Latinos at 12.6 percent and 20-to-24-year-olds at 12.3 percent.

Data from 2010 indicated that nationwide, nearly 45 percent of unemployed workers — more than 6 million people — have been jobless for six months or longer. That rate has been at or above 40 percent for almost two years — the longest period of such high persistent unemployment since 1948.

Currently, the average length of joblessness is 40.5 weeks, nearly double the average duration of unemployment in June 2009, when the great recession officially ended.

Rev. Lee Shaw, rector for the First Unitarian Church, said the notion that Congress could allow unemployment benefits to expire "is both an insult to individuals" and compounds the problems the nation faces economically.

"It's seems like a no-brainer when you see people suffering and we've got the resources to (help)," Shaw said. "It's exceedingly painful."

Meanwhile, the Governor's Office of Economic Development announced hundreds of new jobs that will come to Utah over the next decade.

Beginning in 2012, L-3 will begin the process of hiring up to 500 new workers as it expands its current facility in Salt Lake City over 10 years. Those workers will be paid salaries that exceed 125 percent of the Salt Lake County average wage, a news release stated.

After announcing last month plans to add 50 new jobs to its existing Utah workforce, Hexcel Corp. announced Thursday that the company expects to hire as many as 600 new employees, with wages above 125 percent of the Salt Lake County average salary including benefits, for its two new carbon fiber production lines that are part of an on-going expansion at its Salt Lake City site.

Hexcel’s carbon fiber and prepregs are used predominantly by the aerospace industry to manufacture commercial and military airframe and engine structures, helicopters and satellites.

In addition, Futura Industries — an aluminum manufacturing firm — announced the launch of a two-phase expansion of the company’s aluminum extrusion line and its anodic process line. The company has scheduled an early-2012 start date for the project that will add over 140 new jobs to its Clearfield operation. 

E-mail: jlee@desnews.com