Jobless workers who saw the clock ticking on their unemployment benefits likely breathed a sigh of relief earlier this month after Congress overwhelmingly agreed to extend unemployment insurance payments for as many as 20 weeks. But a nonprofit labor watchdog warns that millions are still at risk of losing that financial lifeline if lawmakers don't renew a key unemployment provision contained within the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Even with the latest extension, jobless benefits contained within the recovery act are set to expire at the end of next month, resulting in 30,000 unemployed workers losing benefits each day starting in January, according to the National Employment Law Project. The group projects the number will rise to nearly 3 million by March.
The question looming before Washington lawmakers is what happens next year should the ARRA unemployment package expire with nothing in its place.

"Congress has less than four weeks left on its schedule to legislate this year, and unless it acts to renew the unemployment provisions during this period, the clock will run out for a million workers," said NELP Executive Director Christine Owens in a statement.

Signed into law by President Obama in February, ARRA funded a number of provisions to help unemployed workers get through the year. With the nation's unemployment rate continuing to rise, having reached 10.2% last month, a similar set of benefits are needed heading into next year, NELP said.

What's at Stake

Among the soon-to-expire unemployment protections contained within the recovery act are expanded benefits to unemployed workers who have used up their initial 26 weeks of state payments; full federal funding of extended benefits that provide 13 to 20 weeks of payments normally paid by the states; a $25 weekly increase in benefit payments, for which nearly 9 million people qualify and now collect; and the suspension of federal income tax paid on the first $2,400 of benefits.

ARRA also provides a 65% subsidy on COBRA payments for up to nine months to help jobless workers maintain health-care insurance through their former employers. Those that signed up for the COBRA subsidy when it first became available in March are already seeing premiums return to pre-subsidy levels effective with their December payments.

NELP said the number of jobless workers who will lose some type of jobless benefit between January and March, which it pegs at 3 million, doesn't include those who no longer qualify for the COBRA subsidy.

A delay in reauthorizing unemployment provisions within ARRA won't only have a devastating effect on unemployed workers and their communities, Owens said. Beginning early next month, "state agencies that administer unemployment benefits will be forced to notify workers that the program will be shut down by the end of year, as required by federal law," she said.

Whether those actions will result in greater numbers of unemployed remains to be seen. But if Congress doesn't renew the programs soon, Owens said, the threatening year-end deadline will create chaos for state agencies and jobless workers alike.

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