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End of Extended Benefits Makes Hard Times Even Harder for Jobless in NJ

Unemployed fear they’ll hit bottom soon as they fall through gaping hole in safety net

Rush Holt
U.S. Rep. Rush Holt

Kathy Vanco of Rahway has been out of work for six months. She has been surviving on a biweekly unemployment check of about $700. That came to an end this week, however, and now she may have to dip into her savings to make ends meet.

“Without unemployment, I won’t be able to pay the car insurance, and forget about health insurance,” she said.

A year ago, Vanco would have been eligible for up to 47 weeks of emergency unemployment benefits – for a total of 73 weeks of aid -- but the federal program expired on December 28 and has not been renewed, having stalled in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday. Unemployed workers now are eligible only for the 26 weeks of state assistance.

An estimated 90,300 unemployed New Jerseyans who were receiving emergency benefits were cut off late last month when a House and Senate budget deal did not include an extension. Another 89,100 jobless workers in the state will see their regular state unemployment benefits run out over the next six months. All workers who qualified for state benefits would have been eligible for the federal extension when the state aid expired.

The long-term unemployment benefits were enacted in 2008 and revised several times, most recently last year. New Jersey workers, because the state’s unemployment rate has been hovering between 7 percent and 9 percent, were eligible for up to 47 extra weeks of federally funded unemployment benefits.

Workers and businesses pay into state and federal unemployment trust funds and then can draw aid from the program if they lose their jobs, provided they were not fired for cause and have worked within the last 18 months. Traditionally, benefits are paid through a federal-state partnership, but extended benefits paid out since 2009 have been fully funded by the federal government, according to a U.S. Department of Labor fact sheet.

Advocates for New Jersey workers and the poor say they are concerned that the Senate’s failure to reauthorize the extension could result in greater stress on agencies that provide help to those in need and make it harder for those who are out of work to keep looking for jobs.

The benefits, which average $394 a week in New Jersey, help jobless workers keep food on their tables and gas in their cars as they look for work and allow them to keep looking for work in an economy in which there are about three applicants for every job opening, advocates say.

Without these benefits, advocates say, the long-term unemployed could turn to state, local and private assistance programs, potentially seeking general assistance or help from local food pantries.

NJ Delegation Backs Extension

Members of New Jersey’s Congressional delegation and its two senators have been pushing for reauthorization of the benefits. Both Sen. Robert Menendez and Sen. Cory Booker have endorsed a three-month extension, and South Jersey Republicans Frank LoBiondo and Jon Runyon signed a letter sent to House Republican leadership in December calling for the benefits to be extended.

Democratic and Republican leadership negotiated amendments, hoping to vote on the benefits on Tuesday, but the debate ended in a stalemate when Republicans filibustered the legislation. The plan called for the extension to be paid for with future budget cuts, which Republicans said was unacceptable.

“The Senate should actually be paying for whatever it passes – and not with spending cuts 11 years from now that may never happen,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday, according to a press release. Republicans also balked at limitations on debate, which McConnell said demonstrated “an attitude that essentially says the views of half the American people don’t matter in the Senate.”

“This is something we can and should do,” Democratic Rep. Rush Holt, who represents Central New Jersey in the House, said by phone Tuesday.

The move by Senate Republicans to impose “a requirement that other programs be cut to cover” benefits was unprecedented when the jobless rate remains historically high, Holt added.

“We shouldn’t be (requiring cuts to the budget) for an emergency measure, which this is,” he said. “Whether for (Hurricane) Sandy or the tornadoes in Oklahoma or this long-term, hardcore unemployment situation, we don’t impose that kind of offset.”

U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, a Democrat who represents Essex County, said on Monday that the benefits allow the unemployed to “meet their needs on a minimal basis to keep them afloat until they can find a job.”

“We have a moral obligation to help our fellow Americans out and give them the economic security that they need to put food on the table, to keep a roof over their head, and to pay their bills so that they have the ability to continue to look for a job,” Payne said.

Critics, however, say that the benefits are being offered far longer than in previous recessions and that the benefits create incentives for the unemployed to not seek jobs. They say the federal government should be focusing on creating jobs and that, if unemployment benefits are to be extended, there need to be cuts in other programs.

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