7 months since unemployment benefits expired, extension unlikely

It’s been seven months since Congress allowed federal unemployment benefits to expire, and in Ohio, Donna Sprague is running out of options.

She lost her specialized nursing job in August 2013. She lost her car to the bank in November. Nearly two months ago, a friend living on the west side of Columbus took her and her husband – a disabled veteran who cannot work and who receives no benefits – in. A few days later, Sprague missed a step at her friend’s house and broke four bones in her foot.

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 fear would’ve been slightly allayed by long-term unemployment benefits – benefits that kick in after state unemployment expires. But in December, Congress allowed current federal unemployment benefits to expire. Some 1.3 million saw their benefits vanish, with about 2 million seeing their benefits run out in the months since then.

Now, it’s been more than six months. There was a brief flare of possibility 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. He said the Senate is increasingly reluctant to devote time to the issue as the November elections approach, particularly since 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 new measure aimed at extending long-term unemployment. 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 cosponsored the newest proposal. Portman, however, backed the bill that the Senate voted on in March.

Until January, the unemployed had two major means of relief: In the immediate period after they lose 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 reached up to 99 weeks – including with state assistance – at the peak of the economic crisis, but as of last December had scaled back to a maximum of 63 weeks in Ohio – 26 with state assistance and 37 with federal assistance.

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; new state numbers will be released July 18. 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 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. He said it was “impossible” to know how many people would be receiving federal compensation now if the program were still 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 the benefits out 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…There’s still a big gap between the people who want to be working and the number of jobs available.”

But James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said because the economy appears to be approving, “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 off some tax increases in exchange for extended unemployment benefits as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal.

“While the economy is not in great shape, it’s a lot better than it was three years ago or four years ago,” he said. “It’s one thing to have unemployment at 10 percent. 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 last August.

She is 56, and her health isn’t ideal – she has arthritis. She had to give her wedding ring to a pawn shop. 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.”