As the recession lingers, help runs out for the unemployed

The recession in Connecticut is lasting long enough to generate a grim new statistic: unemployment benefits expired this year for 15,687 jobless residents, a number that swells each week by an estimated 500 persons.

“This is new to us,” said Nancy Steffens, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor.

Fearing unrest as thousands began to lose benefits in May, the state quietly stationed a half-dozen police officers at unemployment offices for confrontations that never came.

The recession is nearing its 30th month, about five months longer than the maximum unemployment benefits of 99 weeks. Unemployment in Connecticut is hovering around 9 percent.

The National Employment Law Project, a Washington advocacy group for low-wage workers, predicts that 1,000 state residents eventually will see their benefits vanish every week as they reach the nearly two-year limit.

“They are running out of help and they still cannot find a job,” said Maurice Emsellem, a policy co-director at NELP, which used U.S. Department of Labor data for their estimates.

The average unemployment check in May was $300 a week, the state DOL reports. Emsellem said for many recipients, this is their only source of income.

In anticipation of 12,000 recipients’ benefits being cut off in May and the first week of June, state labor officials hired six police officers at a total cost of $23,700 to provide security at about half of the state’s unemployment offices.

The decision to add security was reached as officials saw that thousands of “frustrated” residents were starting to max out at 99 weeks of unemployment, said Paul Oates, a labor department spokesman.

There have been no incidents.

“We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know if anyone was going to be too upset, and they have been without a job for 99 weeks,” Steffens said. “We think it was a smart idea on our part to have them there. Sometimes the police presence makes people feel a little bit safer.”

After three weeks of having the full-time police presence, the DOL decided they were no longer needed.

“Hopefully we won’t need them again,” Steffens said. “We would need to see a huge surge in people no longer eligible.”

The number of people receiving unemployment benefits has swelled since the recession officially began — from 50,000 people the first week in March 2008 to 142,000 last week. The 2009 federal stimulus package extended these benefits from six months to nearly two years.

“It’s pretty amazing how large of a number it has become,” Steffens said.

But this extension expired in May, and Congress is at a stalemate over continuing the extended benefits. Without the extension all new residents who lose their jobs are eligible for just six months of benefits.