Washington — President Obama and congressional Democrats are pushing back against a GOP plan to end federally funded extended unemployment benefits. The White House says the plan would affect more than 1 million of out-of-work Americans, including 85,100 Connecticut residents next year.
Congress is rushing toward a Dec. 15 deadline to develop a budget plan that would avert another government shutdown. House Republicans are developing a proposal that would end across-the-board budget cuts known as sequester, but make up the loss to the U.S. Treasury with an end to long-term unemployment benefits.
Democrats, and the White House, said they would not go along with the trade-off — even as they want an end to the sequester.
“We are making a very clear statement that we cannot, cannot support a budget agreement that does not include unemployment insurance in the budget or as a sidebar in order to move it all along,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “It would undermine who we are as a country.”
Most states, including Connecticut, provide 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. The federal government steps in after that, especially when the economy is in trouble.
In 2008, the depth of the latest recession, the federal government provided 73 weeks of extra benefits in Connecticut. Weeks of federal help have been reduced as the economy improves. Federal extended unemployment benefits total 37 weeks in the state now, for a total of 63 weeks of benefits.
But, if Congress fails to renew the program, those extended unemployment benefits for people who have exhausted their state benefits will end Dec. 28.
House Republicans say there’s no need to continue to extend the benefits since the unemployment rate has dropped to 7.3 percent nationally, even as it remains 7.9 percent in Connecticut.
“These have been extraordinary extensions, and the Republican position all along has been, ‘We need to go back to normal here at some point,'” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
Nancy Steffens, spokeswoman for the Connecticut Department of Labor, said 25,759 state residents received federal benefits last week. That’s far fewer than the White House’s projections of more than 85,000 who would lose benefits; the Obama administration says it considered an aggregate of all who would be eligible in a year. Nationally, the administration said 1.2 million Americans would lose benefits, and an additional 1.3 million who would have qualified won’t receive them next year.
Extended federal benefits usually amount to less than $300 a week.
Nevertheless, unemployed people in Connecticut received $8.7 million in federal benefits last week. The cutoff of those federal funds would “likely have an effect on our economy,” Steffens said.
She also said the Department of Labor will send letters to the nearly 26,000 long-term unemployed workers in Connecticut on Dec. 11, warning them their benefits may end.
The House Democratic Steering Committee, which includes Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, had a hearing Thursday that featured unemployed — and sometimes tearful — workers telling their stories.
“I wake up at night with fears and tears,” said Vera Volk, a microbiologist from Lynn, Mass., who lost her job in May.
Lisa Floyd, the director of volunteer services at a hospice in Huntington, W.Va., who was laid off, said she would have lost her home if she had not received extended benefits. She told of applying to hundreds of jobs and posting her resume on 50 job boards before finding employment.
“I am an extended unemployment benefit success story,” Lloyd said.
DeLauro responded, “Lisa, you are somebody, and you reverse the notion that people who are on unemployment want to remain unemployed.”
Like Pelosi and other Democrats, DeLauro vowed to fight plans to end the benefits to the long-term unemployed.
“They live, they breath, they have families,” she said.
Witnesses at the hearing said people who have been unemployed on a long-term basis tend to be older, members of minority groups, with little education.