Extended unemployment benefits are in jeopardy

Those still struggling warily eye Nov. 23 extension deadline

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On Jan. 1, 2012, while most people are ringing in the New Year, 89,000 Pennsylvanians will have their unemployment benefits cut off.

By June, 289,000 people in the state who otherwise would be getting emergency unemployment benefits will be doing without if Congress does not authorize an extension of the program.

The super committee created as part of the debate over raising the nation's debt ceiling -- a bipartisan group that includes Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and has a Nov. 23 deadline to present its plan to reduce the deficit -- could help push through another extension of federal unemployment benefits, if it chooses.

Maurice Emsellam, the policy co-director at the New York-based National Employment Law Project, is hoping that Congress will extend benefits again because unemployment remains above 9 percent, where it has been stuck for all but two of the last 28 months.

The issue has been a contentious one on the federal level. Throughout 2010, Congress repeatedly fought over whether to reauthorize extensions to unemployment compensation for three-month periods.

"It was a political football," said Mr. Emsellam.

He said no one disputed that workers needed the additional weeks of benefits. They just kept dragging in other issues.

The compromise reached in December 2010 between President Barack Obama and Congress extended emergency unemployment compensation through 2011.

This time around, as the issue comes up again, Mr. Ensellam said there is a focus already on the problem.

Meanwhile, unemployment compensation in Pennsylvania already has been cut back as a result of triggers set up in the system.

Unemployment hit its peak nationally at 10.1 percent and on the state level rose to 8.8 percent for the first four months of 2010.

From the end of 2009 and until April 9, out-of-work Pennsylvanians were able to receive up to 99 weeks of unemployment compensation. At that point, compensation was cut back by six weeks -- known as Tier 4 benefits -- triggered by the unemployment rate dropping below an average of 8.5 percent in the state for a period of 13 weeks.

On June 11, unemployment compensation in the state was further reduced by another seven weeks down to 86 weeks with the loss of the so-called High Unemployment Period Emergency Benefits, which are also tied to the unemployment rate.

For those who are jobless, the system can be confusing.

Standard unemployment compensation starts with eligibility of 26 weeks, regardless of how bad the economy is and paid for by a tax on payrolls.

It's the additional 60 weeks of benefits -- those remaining beyond the 26 weeks the state provides -- that will be terminated at the end of the year.

The extended unemployment compensation through the federal program is arranged in tiers.

Tier 1 lasts 20 weeks, starting after the first 26 weeks of unemployment compensation is exhausted. Tier 2 is an additional 14 weeks, and Tier 3 is another 13 weeks.

Once those three tiers of compensation are exhausted, workers are eligible for up to 13 additional weeks known as emergency benefits.

If Congress and the president do not come to an agreement, Sean Yeakle, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, said those last 13 weeks of emergency benefits will be cut off immediately come Jan. 1. That would affect 89,000 people.

The rest of the program will be cut as unemployed workers finish out whatever tier they are on.

A worker who is still on the initial 26 weeks will not receive additional benefits past that time.

A worker who finished the first level of unemployment and is in the first tier of emergency unemployment compensation will be able to finish out those 20 additional weeks and so on.

The state Department of Labor and Industry has projected that by February, 150,000 Pennsylvania claimants will be affected.

As more people hit their end of their tiers monthly, by June, 289,000 workers will have lost extended benefits.

"Pennsylvania's unemployment rate has been below the national rate for 40 consecutive months, which statewide is a positive, but it does not mean much to those who are still looking for a job," Mr. Yeakle said.

He said the state government is committed to reducing taxes and regulations that are barriers to job creation. "Our goal is to make government leaner and more efficient and to create an economic climate that will enable businesses to create jobs," he said.

In July, employment by state government hit the lowest level it has been in the last 10 years. In the last year, from August 2010 to August 2011, the state cut 5,600 workers.

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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