Saturday, December 28, 2002

Jobless benefits run out

Inaction in Congress leaves thousands without checks

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Unemployment benefits halt today for more than 3,600 jobless workers in Greater Cincinnati because Congress failed to extend the benefits before leaving town.

Back in March, as it has done in previous recessions, Congress helped unemployed workers. It added 13 weeks of federally financed unemployment checks to the 26 weeks of state-funded unemployment that most workers get.

But Congress set Dec. 28 as the emergency program's end, expecting to renew it - something virtually all lawmakers agreed should have been done.

The House passed its version extending the aid and blamed the Senate for blocking it. The Senate passed its version and blamed the House. President Bush agreed this month in a national radio address that it should be Congress' "first order of business" when it returns in January.

But it's too late for Stephen Shouse of Batavia, laid off from Tri-Star Refractories in Newtown in April.

The $303 a week checks ceased earlier this month. He has had to get rid of his long-distance telephone service, drop his car's collision insurance and keep his house at 55 degrees.

He's cleaning out his house, too, preparing to rent it while he moves back with his 75-year-old mother.

"I've applied for about everything - any kind of factory job, a couple of maintenance jobs, shipping and receiving," said Mr. Shouse, 45, who had been earning about $650 a week before taxes as a quality assurance inspector. "I'm about tempted to run up to McDonald's, see if they'll take me in."

Congress "wants to spend billions of dollars to go make war when they won't spend a few millions of dollars for the people that are actually here in this country," he lamented.

Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and chairman of the House Republican leadership, said Congress would try to pass an extension almost as soon as it returns Jan. 7.

"It's wrong for Congress not to make the benefits retroactive to the cutoff point," said Mr. Portman, a member of the Ways and Means Committee.

"It's important we act as soon as we come into session."

Extended benefits average $250 a week and are paid to unemployed workers who have exhausted their 26 weeks of state insurance benefits. Massachusetts and Washington state provide 30 weeks of state coverage.

Unemployed workers in three states with high unemployment rates - Alaska, Oregon and Washington - will continue to qualify for extended benefits even if Congress does not renew the current program.

Three groups are affected by the cutoff:

• Those in the midst of the 13-week extension, who will see their checks stop. The country has an estimated 780,000 such workers, 46,500 in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.

• Those coming to the end of their 26-week state-financed period who will not have any bonus time. About 95,000 workers every week will exhaust regular benefits, including 4,900 a week in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

• About 1 million workers, like Mr. Shouse, whose 13 weeks have run out but who have not yet found work. About 74,800 people in the three states are affected.

Several of the congressional bills, including some by Republicans, would have granted a few more weeks to the "exhaustees," as Mr. Shouse's group is called.

"That group of workers is on the bubble, so to speak," said Isaac Shapiro, senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

That's because the percentage of unemployed workers who have run out of benefits and yet remain unemployed hit a record 47 percent in October.

Translation: Unemployed people are finding it harder than ever to find new jobs.

The November unemployment rate of 6 percent was the highest since April of this year, and it last reached that high in August 1994, the Department of Labor said.

But new jobless claims are dropping. Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, issued a report earlier this month debunking what he called "liberal myths" about unemployment.

Fewer people are unemployed now than in the recessions of the early 1990s and early 1980s, he said. And extending benefits through March, as the Senate bill did, would have cost about $5 billion.

The federal extension is known as Temporary Emergency Unemployment Compensation.

During the recession of the early 1990s, Congress offered 33 weeks of additional benefits, giving the unemployed more than a year to find a job.

"The unemployment rate today is 6 percent. That's the highest so far in this recession - another indication it is not time to end this program," said Wendell Primus, the director of income security at the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

With Congress united under the GOP, Congress is expected to pass some kind of help for the unemployed early in the year.

Local governors are urging workers to keep applying for the extended benefits, in case Congress makes the extension retroactive to Saturday.

"We're hopeful it will be reauthorized," said Janet Hoover, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Cabinet for Workforce Development.

Mr. Shouse is optimistic he'll find a job soon and said he's fortunate he has no family to support.

A diabetic, his biggest headache is health insurance, which costs him $280 a month.


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