Congress turns its back on long-term jobless

The Senate agreed to extend the federally funded Temporary Emergency Unemployment Compensation (TEUC) program on May 23. The measure provides a maximum of 13 additional weeks of unemployment benefits for the 2.1 million workers who will exhaust their state unemployment benefits between June 1 and Dec. 31.

Senate action came only days before the existing 13-week extension of federal benefits was set to expire on May 31. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the House had left town for the week-long Memorial Day recess, thus forcing the Senate to accept the House-passed measure or allow the program to expire.

However, critics charge, the legislation being sent to the president denies extended benefits to more than one million long-term unemployed workers who have exhausted both state and federal benefits. This number will increase by 680,000 in the next three months.

In a statement released following the Senate’s action, Maurice Emsellem, project director of the National Employment Law Project, pointed to the inadequacy of the 13-week extension, adding, “During the last recession, a similar federal program provided 26 weeks of federal extended benefits at its peak, with workers in many states receiving 39 weeks.”

The Center on Budget Policy and Priorities says an estimated 3.2 million workers have exhausted both state and federal unemployment benefits since the TEUC program began in March 2002, a 70 per cent increase compared to the recession of the early ’90s. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that 80 percent of all laid off workers have savings equal to only two months of their previous earnings.

According to a national survey done by Peter D. Hart, 83 percent of unemployed workers say it’s harder today to find an acceptable job compared to when they last had to look for work, and the average unemployed worker has applied for no less than 29 jobs. Nearly seven in ten unemployed workers say that the ending of their unemployment benefits has had a major impact on meeting their family’s basic needs.

Although congressional sources put a $7.9 billion price tag on the program, money to pay for extended benefits comes from the more than $20 billion surplus in the unemployment trust fund. It does not require an appropriation by Congress.