Congress to move ahead, then freeze up, on jobless benefits

Joanne Lavieri of Manchester has been job hunting with little success.

Joanne Lavieri of Manchester has been job hunting with little success.

Washington – Because Congress failed to act, Joanne Lavieri of Manchester received her last unemployment check at the end of March and faces a very uncertain future.

Lavieri is out of work because a medical condition prevents her from being able to perform her former job of providing therapeutic recreation for the elderly and other people in long-term care. She’s having a hard time finding another line of work that is less physically demanding and allows her to use what she calls her “people skills.”

Having exhausted 26 weeks of state jobless benefits, and with no one else to support her financially, Lavieri said she will tap into her savings and keep sending out resumes.

“I also do a lot of praying,” she said.

A debate on what to do about people like Lavieri is raging on Capitol Hill. The economic recovery has left behind a group of people, the so-called long-term unemployed, who could once count on more than 70 weeks of federal unemployment benefits after they had exhausted their 26 weeks of benefits from the state. Congress approved 99 weeks of long-term benefits in 2008, in the depths of the recession, then scaled them back a bit when the economy began to improve. The average benefits ranged from $300 to $400 a week.

But that help to the unemployed stopped Dec. 28 because Congress failed to renew the benefits, leaving nearly 27,000 unemployed workers in Connecticut suddenly without support. Countless other jobless workers in the state who are hitting their limit of state benefits every week are also on their own.

The Senate is expected to give thousands of long-term unemployed in Connecticut – and more than 2 million of these jobless workers nationwide — a boost late Monday by approving a compromise bill that would give Lavieri and others another five months of support. The bill is retroactive, so those who’ve been cut off since December would receive back benefits in a lump sum.

That may help many pay their overdue bills.

But some consider the bill dead on arrival in the Republican-led House of Representatives. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other Republicans say Congress should approve GOP-sponsored bills aimed at creating jobs instead of renewing a government-funded program to help unemployed workers.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who decides which bills are considered on the House floor, said Friday, “(The Senate bill) doesn’t create any jobs. And right now we are in the business of seeing how we can get people back to work for an America that works for more people.”

Meanwhile, Boehner has called the Senate bill “unworkable” because he said he’s concerned about backdating the benefit checks from when the unemployed benefits were cut off. Since then, Boehner said, some of the long-term unemployed found work, and it will be difficult to determine who deserves back benefits.

“The state (labor agency) directors are saying, ‘We don’t know who went back to work, we don’t know who is still out there, so we would have to send checks to everybody,’” Boehner said. “I don’t think taxpayers expect us to do that. So I don’t see how that is workable.”

The Connecticut Department of Labor said it does not know how many long-term unemployed workers have lost federal benefits since December and how many are still out of work.

Nonetheless, Lavieri and many long-term unemployed think Congress should have never ended federal jobless benefits and should reinstate them as soon as possible.

“I don’t feel that Congress understands what the general public goes through,” she said.

Lavieri said she’d much rather work than collect benefits. “I don’t enjoy just sitting around and waiting for my check to come,” she said.

Sandy Rodriguez, spokeswoman for Hartford-based Capital Workforce Partners, a nonprofit with a mission to provide skilled workers for businesses, said she doesn’t expect much from Congress.

“You get revved up over and over again only to get disappointed over and over again,” Rodriguez said, referring to the fits and starts Congress has had on an unemployment insurance bill. “As far as anyone who expects anything from Congress these days – bless them.”

The bill expected to be approved in the Senate Monday is a compromise between Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., whose home states have some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, 9 percent and 8.5 percent respectively.

The national unemployment rate is 6.7 percent, and Connecticut’s is 7 percent.

The Senate bill cleared a procedural hurdle Friday with the support of all Democrats, the Senate’s two independents and five Republicans besides Heller.

Supporters of the bill had hoped more Senate Republicans would back the bill to exert more pressure on Boehner. The entire Connecticut congressional delegation supports extending jobless benefits, and many have held events in the state with unemployed workers or met them at official functions.

“Back in January, at my ‘Congress on your Corner’ in Bethel, a woman from Brookfield came up to me in tears,” said Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District. “She lost her unemployment insurance at the end of the year, and she was struggling to pay her mortgage and heating bills during this cold winter. Job-seekers like her deserve better… The Senate will be voting soon to renew unemployment insurance, and it’s time for the House to act as well.”

But Esty and all other members of the Connecticut congressional delegation are Democrats, and it’s House Republican support that’s needed. That looks very weak right now.

Meanwhile, many economists say the long-term unemployed will remain in our communities, perhaps forever.

Last year, the Urban Institute released a report on the long-term jobless that said changes in the workplace that ushered in technological innovation and automation almost guarantees that some who have been laid off will find it difficult, or even impossible, to find another job.

“It is important to note that even if the economy returns to full employment, there are likely to remain many workers facing long-term unemployment challenges,” the report said.

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