Unemployment increases — by how much?

The Employment Security Commission of North Carolina announced Friday that the latest unemployment rates increased in almost 100 percent of the state's counties.

But that percentage could leave out some of the county's jobless, masking a higher unemployment rate than was originally projected.

Unemployment rates are based on estimates of people seeking work in the state, said Larry Parker, an ESC spokesperson.

The people, however, who are without a job and aren't actively looking for work can be lost in the unemployment count. Many of those people, Parker said, exhausted their unemployment benefits and gave up looking for employment.

January employment data released Friday from the ESC says employment rates in majority of North Carolina counties increased from December to January. Overall, the January data show a decrease in unemployment from the same time a year ago.

"The January data reflected a decrease in 86 counties over the year," said ESC chairman Lynn R. Holmes. "We continue to recognize that there are still challenges ahead of us as we continue to provide services focused on helping people get back to work."

Catawba County's unemployment rate increased from 12.3 percent in December to 12.6 percent in January. The Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton metropolitan statistical area's January unemployment rate was 12.8 percent, which is the second highest of the state's 14 metropolitan areas.

Statewide, the unemployment rate for January is 10.5 percent, which means more people every day are becoming part of the displaced workers who call themselves the 99ers. These workers exhausted their 99 weeks of unemployment benefits and are without income.

"Essentially, there's really nothing left for them to do (to get more benefits)," Parker said.

Kimberly Hipp, 52, of Newton, is one of those people.

"You keep hearing that the economy's getting better and jobs are coming to North Carolina, but we're not seeing it," Hipp said.

Hipp was laid off her job as a recreational therapist about three years ago when her position was vacated. She started receiving unemployment benefits in 2007, and her benefits were exhausted Jan. 11.

"The computer screen just says, 'Your benefits are exhausted,'" Hipp said. "It's just like suddenly your income is gone."

Parker said unemployed workers receive benefits that amount to a percentage of their previous income up to $19,700. The maximum benefit per week is $506.

In January, 4,150 Regular Unemployment Insurance Initial Claims were filed in Catawba County. That represents the fourth highest number of initial claims filed in North Carolina. Only Mecklenburg, Wake and Guilford counties has higher numbers in initial claims.

Fourty-three percent of those claims represent people who, like Hipp, are 45 or older.

"People say that's the time of life when people's health starts to get bad," Hipp said, adding that employers don't want to pay the insurance costs for older workers. "Even (paying for) childbirth is cheaper."

Hipp, like many 99ers, finds herself overqualified for the jobs for which she applies. Hipp worked in health care and retirement centers for 30 years, but she said many employers choose to hire the less experienced younger workers, who companies can pay less.

"I'm usually sitting there looking at someone who is 20 years younger than me, and I'm thinking, 'What's going through their head?'" Hipp said. "They look at my resume, and I think it scares them."

Hipp has no income, and although she applies for jobs regularly, she has no job prospects.

"So many people, especially in the South, we're such proud people," Hipp said. "So many of us feel like we are what we do, and when that's taken away, we feel like, 'What do we do?'"

She was alerted about two weeks before her benefits stopped, and she saved money to prepare for that day. Hipp is single and doesn't have children, but she says she worries about the countless unemployed parents in the county who do have families.

"I've stood in line with folks before who've done nothing but make socks their entire lives," Hipp said. "And people say to them, 'You need to go over to the computer section to fill out an application.'"

Hipp wondered why so many job applications are based online when many unemployed people have to cut extras, like the Internet, from their expenditures. Hipp said she goes to the library to utilize free Internet access.

"There has to be a plan for action," she said. "It's just going to get worse. People are going to lose their homes."