WASHINGTON — It’s been seven months since Congress allowed federal unemployment benefits to expire, and, in Ohio, Donna Sprague is running out options.
She lost her specialized nursing job in August. She lost her car to the bank in November. Nearly two months ago, a friend living on the West Side of Columbus took in her and her husband, a disabled veteran who cannot work and who receives no benefits. A few days later, Sprague missed a step at her friend’s house and broke four bones in her foot.
She said she’s sent out more than 400 resumes and landed two interviews. There are “too many employees,” she said, “for too few jobs.”
In the past, her troubles would’ve been slightly cushioned by long-term unemployment benefits — benefits that kick in after state unemployment runs out. But in December, Congress allowed federal unemployment benefits to expire. Some 1.3 million people saw their benefits vanish, with about 2 million seeing their benefits run out in the months since then.
Until January, the unemployed had two major means of relief: In the immediate period after they lost their jobs, they could — and can — apply for and receive state unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks.
And until Dec. 28, they also had federal unemployment benefits after that. Federal benefits covered up to 99 weeks — including state assistance — at the peak of the economic crisis, but as of December, they had been scaled back to a maximum of 63 weeks in Ohio — 26 with state assistance and 37 with federal assistance.
There was a brief possibility of a deal for an extension in March, when the Senate voted to move forward on a measure to extend unemployment benefits for the more than 3.3 million long-term unemployed in this country.
The House, however, refused to take up the bill, with House Speaker John Boehner saying the Senate measure did not do enough to create more private-sector jobs and that any extension must be paid for.
Now, it’s unclear if they’ll ever be restored.
“There are just an awful lot of hurdles on this,” said Steve Billet, director of the Legislative Affairs Master’s program at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management in Washington.
He said the Senate is increasingly reluctant to devote time to the issue as the November elections approach, particularly because they’ve already acted on the issue, and the House remains skeptical of the bill the Senate passed in March.
Still, in late June, Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., introduced a measure aimed at extending long-term unemployment benefits. A spokesman for Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said Brown is supportive of their efforts. “We should not turn our back on Ohioans looking for new work,” said Brown, saying that extending unemployment would help “families pay their bills and put food on the table during hard times.”
A spokesman for Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, meanwhile, said Portman has not co-sponsored the newest proposal. Portman, however, backed the bill that the Senate voted on in March.
The federal aid was part of the 2008 response to a struggling economy. But proponents of extending the benefits argue that while the economy has improved, it still has a ways to go. Ohio’s unemployment rate was 5.5 percent in May, down from 5.7 percent in April. The U.S. unemployment rate for June was 6.1 percent, down from 7.5 percent in May 2013.
Long-term unemployment is slowly improving as well. The Department of Labor reported on Thursday that the number of those jobless for 27 weeks or more declined by 293,000 in June, to 3.1 million. That number is down 1.2 million from last year.
Ben Johnson, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, said 37,600 Ohioans filed a claim for federal emergency unemployment compensation during the last week the program was available.
The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which tracks the issue, estimates 128,600 more Ohioans will lose unemployment compensation through December 2014 if the program is not extended.
The federal government has offered long-term unemployment benefits more than a half-dozen times during the past few decades, each time phasing out the benefits only after the economy has improved.
“It’s understood to be a temporary program, not something that gets built into the budget going forward,” said Chad Stone, chief economist at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “But don’t end it until the employment situation is good enough that the long-term unemployed have a reasonable shot at getting a job.”
But James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said because the economy appears to be improving, “you haven’t had as much pressure on Congress to pass this.”
He said if the economy were worse off, Democrats would be more likely to negotiate with Republicans. That was the case, he said, in 2013, when Democrats were willing to trade some tax increases for extended unemployment benefits as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal.
“It’s one thing to have unemployment at 10 percent,” he said. “Now, it’s fallen down to about 6 percent. We appear to be headed in the right trajectory.”
That does little for people like Sprague, who worked for the same company for 23 years until it closed in 2005. After that, she moved to another place that closed. Since then, she worked at several jobs until August.
She is 56 and has arthritis. She had to pawn her wedding ring. Now, she’s worried about getting behind on the bills for her storage unit. She doesn’t want to lose the possessions she still has. She is, she said, in a constant state of panic.
“Every job I’ve held I went in with the hope that this will be the place I retire from,” she said. “It has not worked out that way.”
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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