“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.”