A battle in the U.S. Senate over the nation's deficit and taxes is increasingly leaving the country's jobless as its biggest victim. Congress ended the week with no action to extend unemployment benefits in 2010.
According to the National Employment Law Project, 900,000 people have already lost some benefits and the number will grow to 1.2 million by month's end. By the end of July, that number will double without congressional action. The delay may wind up being temporary, but it is infuriating advocates for the unemployed.
"They are playing partisan games with these people's lives," said Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the law project, noting the country's 9.7% jobless rate. "How do they think that these people are going to eat and keep their health care?"
While states and employers fund the first 26 weeks of unemployment and some states more, the federal government has provided three aid programs.
One offers extended unemployment benefits. Another offers a $25 a week addition to regular unemployment benefits. A third has offered the unemployed who could buy COBRA health care coverage from their ex-employer, up to 15 months of subsidized coverage (the government paid 65% of the cost).
Together the state and federal programs provide from 60 to 99 weeks of unemployment. All the federal programs, however, expired at the end of May and need Congressional approval if they are to continue. Instead, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have been engaged in a rancorous fight and been trading accusations.
For the unemployed, Congress' failure to act plays out in several ways.
The newly unemployed won't get the COBRA help, nor do they get the $25 a week extra. They also don't get the 34 to 46 weeks of extended benefits, though there would be time for congressional action to return that benefit.
The bigger problem is for the already unemployed whose state benefits are expiring. The Washington stalemate means there is temporarily no extended benefit program to take over.
Luckier are the unemployed who already are on the federal extension. They keep getting it.
The House and Senate have each approved legislation to extend the federal benefits -- but separate versions. Neither has extended the COBRA help. Recently the Senate has also been tied up in a partisan fight over tax changes that are part of the legislation
"At this point, there is a sense of urgency that is utterly lacking, said Conti. She said the benefits that families receive on unemployment averages $300 a week.
"Congress seems to think this is plenty but it's a bag or groceries or health care for the unemployed."
This is the second time this year that Congress has left some of the jobless without benefits but the first time was shorter.
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