Congress debates unemployment benefits extension

December 6, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
The nation's biggest union organization issued a new report warning that hundreds of thousands of Californians will lose their unemployment benefits right after Christmas, if Congress doesn't act.

The Great Recession hit the construction industry hard. Millions lost their jobs, like unemployed sheet metal worker Jeff Davis. He recently became a "99er," someone who has exhausted all 99 weeks of unemployment benefits; that's 26 weeks of normal benefits, plus five extensions.

"I'm not quite sure what's going to happen to me," Davis said. "I spent 20 years basically getting to where I was, and was happy, hanging sheet metal duct work all day. Now that's gone."

The AFL-CIO estimates more than 300,000 Californians will be joining Davis if Congress doesn't act to extend benefits by the end of the year. Washington is hung up on its usual fights.

Bud McKinney saw the same stalemate last year. He was right at 97 weeks when he decided to retire rather than risk no money coming in at all.

"I could see that my benefits were running out. I didn't see that Congress was acting to extend anything. I didn't know if they could extend anything," McKinney said. "I was one of the lucky ones. I had a way out. I had my retirement."

McKinney's decision turned out to be the right one. Congress barely approved extensions last year, but not beyond 99 weeks.

But extending jobless benefits is costly. Because the state's unemployment trust fund is broke, California has been borrowing money from the federal government for two years to keep the checks going. Taxpayers forked over $300 million in interest to the feds this fall; another $400 million is due in nine months.

"That continues to be very costly to the state the longer we go without a solvency solution," Loree Levy with the California Employment Development Department said.

Labor unions say the economy can't afford to let the benefits expire. They are readying signs to picket Congressional offices across the country Thursday, urging lawmakers to set aside partisanship.

"Now is not the time to be playing a political game with unemployment benefits that are keeping people alive," Davis said.

And it's not just the 99ers on the line. If you, for instance, are on your third extension, you cannot move into the fourth extension without Congressional approval. The average extension benefit is about $300 a week.

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