Sunday, June 06, 2010

107,000 Floridians lose jobless checks June 4
107,000 Floridians lose jobless checks June 4

By Jim Stratton, Orlando Sentinel

6:58 PM EDT, June 4, 2010

About 107,000 Floridians will lose their unemployment benefits today, a number expected to grow by 34,000 people with each passing week.

Payments will stop because Congress has not reauthorized legislation to pay for the complicated mix of programs that keeps benefits flowing to millions of jobless across the country.

For the state's long-term unemployed — 107,000 or so receiving checks under the "Extended Benefits" program — today marks the end of the last week of payments.

For those receiving benefits under one of six programs — one state, five federal — payments will end gradually. Laid-off workers will be paid through the end of whatever tier they are on, but they will not move on to the next level.

That's because federal funding is drying up.

Congress has been covering virtually all of the costs of the programs, reauthorizing them on an almost monthly basis since early this year. But amid growing concerns about the deficit, lawmakers have balked at fully funding them beyond today.

Federal legislation is in place to cover half of the costs of the programs, but Florida and other states have said they can't afford to pay for the rest. The National Employment Law Project, a worker-advocacy group, estimates about 1.2 million people across the country will lose benefits this month.

Federal officials say about 615,000 people in Florida have requested benefits during the past few weeks. Benefits max out at $300 a week.

The U.S. House narrowly passed a $54 billion measure recently reauthorizing the programs through November — while stripping out subsidies for health insurance — but advocates worry the bill won't be approved by the Senate.

"There's push-back from the deficit hawks," said NELP Deputy Director Andrew Stettner. "The whole program is in jeopardy like it's never been before."

Even if the Senate does pass the House bill, a third group of unemployed won't get any help. Those workers have already exhausted all of their benefits and won't receive anything more unless Congress passes an additional tier of federal payments.

Currently, the longest anyone can receive unemployment is 99 weeks — that number has never been higher — and there is little political will to increase that.

"Last week, [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi took that off the map," said Judy Conti, NELP's federal advocacy coordinator. "Sadly, she made it very clear, there won't be any talk about tier five at least until November."

Advocates insist benefits must be available for all jobless workers because the nation's labor market remains in hibernation.

New figures Friday show the national unemployment rate dipped slightly to 9.7 percent in May, but temporary census workers accounted for most of the improvement. The private sector added only 41,000 jobs, fewer than had been projected and not enough to accommodate natural growth of the labor market.

Laid-off workers receiving no unemployment pump little money into the local economy, and that can slow the recovery. They buy fewer things, stop going out to eat and often retreat into a financial cocoon. That, in turn, sets off economic ripples within their communities.

"Consumers make up about 70 percent of our economy, and income from employment makes up about 80 percent of the typical family's income," wrote Heather Boushey, a senior economist with the Center for American Progress. "Without job gains … consumption will stall, which in turn will drag down economic growth.''

Orlando resident Don Meier learned this week that his benefits have run out. He's 64 and lives with a friend in a condo, relying on a small pension and his late wife's survivors benefits. He lives simply, he said, but has a car loan and his son's student loan to pay.

He's worried about losing his unemployment check — "For me, it was awfully handy," he said — but his bigger concern is for young couples with children. He knew lots of people like that, he said, when he worked as a boat captain at Universal.

"I feel so bad for those people," he said. "They won't be getting any money, and there still aren't any jobs out there. I'm just afraid it's going to get worse and worse."