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‘Glitch’ could cut jobless benefits for a million

About one million laid-off workers will see their unemployment benefits end in January unless Congress acts quickly to renew existing federally paid extensions.
/ Source: The New York Times

About one million laid-off workers will see their unemployment benefits end in January unless Congress acts quickly to renew existing federally paid extensions, according to a new report and legislators and state officials.

The record-long extension of emergency benefits that was hastily signed into law on Nov. 6 was widely praised as an essential lifeline for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who had spent a year or more in fruitless searches for jobs.

The new law provided up to 14 weeks of federally paid aid to unemployed people who had exhausted existing state and federal limits, benefits that already ranged up to 79 weeks in many states. And for the majority of states with particularly high unemployment, it added on an additional six weeks of payments, bring the potential total to 99 weeks.

But many legislators, state aid officials and struggling workers apparently failed to read the fine print. The added federal benefits, built on a series of previous extensions, are slated to end on Dec. 31; it was assumed that Congress would vote to prolong those programs. While discussions have started, Congress is not yet considering a specific proposal. And unless it acts before the Christmas break, officials warn, the extensions will end, leaving large numbers of workers with no coverage. If Congress, now caught up with the health care overhaul, delays action until next year, millions would still face painful gaps in aid.

“There are six people looking for every available job, and these payments are enabling people to pay their mortgages and put food on the table,” said Representative Jim McDermott, Democrat of Washington, who championed the Nov. 6 law and hopes to light a new fire under Congress.

“It’s a horribly complicated system, and most people didn’t pay attention,” Mr. McDermott said of the need for quick Congressional renewal.

Nancy E. Dunphy, deputy commissioner for employment security with the New York State Department of Labor, said that officials in New York and most if not all other states “were taken by surprise by this.”

“It makes no sense,” Ms. Dunphy said. “You had the president and others saying that the intent was to add 20 weeks of benefits, and now we have this glitch, if you want to call it that.”

In ordinary times, unemployed workers in most states receive 26 weeks of benefits, averaging just over $300 a week, paid from state insurance funds. Many find jobs before exhausting the aid, but unemployment has been particularly tenacious in the current recession and recovery and Congress has responded, as it normally does in recessions, with emergency extensions. Under these temporary measures, workers are currently eligible for a series of federally paid extensions, awarded in stages, often 13 or 14 weeks at a time.

Nearly nine million people receive unemployment insurance, five million on the initial state programs and four million through federal extensions.

Without renewal of the programs for 2010, according to guidelines issued by the Department of Labor, at the turn of the year recipients will continue receiving benefits in their current stage but will no longer jump to the next stage.

According to projections to be released Wednesday by the National Employment Law Project, a private research group that worked with state officials to develop the numbers, 474,111 unemployed workers will exhaust their state benefits during January and, in the absence of Congressional action, not receive any extensions.

An additional 581,000 workers will see their federal benefits end in January, according to the study.

“Congress has less than four weeks left on the schedule to legislate this year, and then the clock will run out for a million workers,” Christine Owens, executive director of the law project, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Ms. Dunphy of New York said that without a federal renewal, 685,000 New Yorkers will not receive expected benefits in 2010. People who lost their jobs after July 1 of this year, she noted, will not exhaust their initial 26 weeks of aid until after Jan. 1, and then they will receive nothing.

While economic growth has resumed, economists say that job growth will be sluggish, with high unemployment, now at 10.2 percent, persisting through most of the coming year.

The Nov. 6 extensions received overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and then, after several weeks of delay, passed the Senate unanimously. Mr. McDermott said he believed that because so many constituents are suffering, a renewal for next year will pass with broad support, provided Congress can muster the attention in the short time available.

This article, originally appeared in the New York Times.