Today is a big day for 2.8 million unemployed people who had, at least temporarily, lost their unemployment benefits. A move to restore extended unemployment payments of up to 99 weeks won a key Senate procedural vote.
A final vote could come later today (July 20).
The House is expected to take up the legislation on Wednesday and President Obama to sign it by Friday. States could begin issuing retroactive checks as early as next week, though it could take longer in some states.
Experts said states have to not only rewrite software to issue the retroactive checks, but in at least one state -- Florida -- may have to go to the state legislature for authority to issue them.
Some states are not ready to pay retroactively, according to Rebecca Dixon, a policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project. .If the Senate rejects the extension, the 2.8 million and many more could be out of luck. Congress is about to take its August recess, but Democrats claim they have the votes.
The Senate battle impacts unemployment payments after the initial 26 weeks of benefits, a time when a series of federal unemployment extensions usually kick in during periods of high unemployment.
One extension offers another 20 weeks of benefits nationally. A second gives another 14. Then in states with higher unemployment, two more extensions can allow benefits for a total of 99 weeks. Normally that process is seamless. Unemployed people just move through each extension available in their state.
Since June 1, the Senate stalemate has halted that normal movement for 48 days. Instead, every time an unemployed person completes one of the periods, benefits have halted. That can leave newly unemployed people with as little as 26 weeks of benefits.
The Department of Labor estimates 2.8 million unemployed will be minus benefits by week's end. That number grows several hundred thousand each week as additional people hit the end of one of the extension periods.
States, expecting the claims to eventually be paid, have urged the unemployed to continue to file claims, but Dixon said the extent of the delay is making the payments increasingly complex for the states.
"The longer it stays in limbo, the harder it is for the states to pick up," she said. She noted the 48 days, while the third this year, far exceeds any past delay. The delay forces states to track and issue checks to more and more people.
Democrats and Republicans both want the extension. They are battling over how to pay the $34 billion costs. Republicans don't want to raise the deficit and want a cutback in other programs to pay for the extension. Democrats have already cut back some other related programs, including one that has provided up to 65% of the cost for COBRA health care coverage for a year. (Newly unemployed no longer get the benefit.) The Democrats argue the unemployment extension itself is traditional in a time of high unemployment.
Monday, President Obama hit Republicans about the delay.
"There's been a tradition –- under both Democratic and Republican presidents –- to offer relief to the unemployed," the president said. "But right now, these benefits –- benefits that are often the person's sole source of income while they're looking for work -– are in jeopardy."
Democrats had been confidant because they entered today's vote with one advantage. Carte Goodwin was sworn in this afternoon to replace the late Sen. Robert Byrd, which gave Democrats a key extra vote.
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