Unemployed worry about loss of extended benefits

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On Friday, Feb. 13, 2009, Suzanne Chichester was handed a box at her desk at Bayer Corp. and was told she would not be coming back.

A year later, she is facing the prospect of her unemployment compensation going away, too.

The federal extension of emergency unemployment compensation, which allowed up to 99 weeks of compensation, was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that was signed into law four days after Mrs. Chichester lost her job. The act only allowed for the emergency extension to be in effect until March 1.

Nationally, 1.2 million people face losing their unemployment compensation next month, with 62,500 of them in Pennsylvania. The number of people without benefits will soar to 5 million people by June, 276,700 of them in Pennsylvania, according to figures prepared by the National Employment Law Project.

"The notion that these people who lose their benefits will be able to go out and get a job is wildly unrealistic," Mark Price, a labor economist for the Keystone Research Center, said. Mr. Price noted that federal figures show there are currently more than six unemployed workers for every job opening.

Mrs. Chichester of McDonald wasn't actually an employee of Bayer. She had been an Adecco temporary staffer for nine years. During her time as a temp she never received health insurance from Bayer, but she did get the benefit of working at the same place for nearly a decade. She said her co-workers had become a quasi-family to her.

In her temporary job, she was an administrative assistant in the import department, where she reconciled foreign currencies with the U.S. dollar and handled reams of paperwork regarding shipping. She said she was "busy, busy, busy" but that she loved it.

Then Bayer outsourced her department.

Thursday morning she was already out of the house when her sister called to say there was a job fair at The Mall at Robinson. Mrs. Chichester, who always has a folder of resumes in her car, headed over to talk to representatives from Dollar Bank, Bettis Laboratory and Clearview Federal Credit Union.

Her job search took on even more urgency last Sunday when she was informed during her call to the state Unemployment Compensation office that without federal reauthorization of the extension of unemployment compensation, she will be receiving one week more of federal money.

"It was devastating," she said.

Mrs. Chichester, and more than millions of other people who have been unemployed for six months or longer, are depending on the federal extension of unemployment benefits, which kick in when the standard 26 weeks of unemployment is exhausted. That federal extension allows for up to 99 total weeks of unemployment.

Mrs. Chichester, who was already on the second tier of the federal emergency extension, said she had been told that she wouldn't be receiving a third tier, but could qualify for 13 more weeks of state money.

Unemployment compensation and the various economic measures that trigger extensions and emergency extensions are a complex system that almost require a flow chart and an accountant to figure out.

The basics in Pennsylvania are that people who lose their jobs under ordinary economic conditions are eligible for 26 weeks of unemployment. If the economy gets bad enough -- and it is -- they can get a 13-week extension.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allowed for further extensions that ultimately added up to 99 weeks of unemployment compensation.

What Congress has yet to decide is whether to reauthorize the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.

David Smith, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, said that if the funding is not reauthorized, anyone currently receiving compensation through federal funding will be able to complete the tier of funding that they are currently in and move on to the state extension, if they have not already exhausted those 13 weeks.

The issue of reauthorizing the extension of benefits has been hovering in Washington, D.C., for weeks, but was not included in the jobs bill that was passed by the Senate on Wednesday. Instead Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he was considering a 30-day extension to the authorization while Congress prepares a package to extend benefits for a longer term. That plan has met with opposition from Republicans concerned about its cost.

Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, said on Tuesday that the program should be extended for another 12 months, which does not add to the time individuals can get unemployment compensation, but extends the time that the benefits will be in place.

"Millions of Americans are now relying on unemployment benefits as their only source of income other than food stamps," he said. "These are Americans who worked hard, played by the rules and lost their jobs not through any fault of their own but because of the worst economic crisis in 70 years ... Unemployment benefits are often the only way they can make ends meet for their families and keep a roof over their heads."

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699. First Published February 26, 2010 5:00 AM


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