Witness Wednesdays Promote Plight of the Long-Term Jobless

You've heard the story many times about good people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own, and find their lives turned upside down.

That's Debra's story, too. She's a vivacious 48-year-old single mother who's worked all of her life, up until one year ago. What's different about Debra is that in addition to looking for a job and trying to retrain for a new career, she's become an advocate for millions of others just like her.

Debra had been in sales at a small family-owned kitchen and bath business in West Texas, but within a year both owners died and the heirs laid off most of the staff. She knew she had the skills and energy to be a good employee, but she couldn't even get an interview for another job.

"I didn't realize it was this bad until it affected me," said Debra, who asked that her last name be omitted. "I want to work. If you've been looking every day for six months, you have to have good work ethic."

No More Extended Federal Aid

Like millions of others, she signed up to receive unemployment benefits, which helped her make ends meet. She checked online and found out that she was eligible for 99 weeks of benefits -- or so she thought. Texas paid the first 26 weeks, and then federal emergency benefits kicked in. But after just one week, the checks stopped coming. Congress had cut the aid to 73 weeks and at the end of 2013 eliminated federal aid altogether.

Online, she found many others in her same predicament. "This issue found us," said Katherine McFate, CEO of the Center for Effective Government. "People started sending us their stories, and we became their voice."

That led the group to start "Witness Wednesdays," a series of weekly events that began in June at which members of Congress push to reinstate federal jobless benefits. The Congressmen read the stories of individuals who have been out of work for more than 26 weeks, the standard definition of long-term unemployment.

The Senate approved an extension earlier this year, and a bipartisan group of eight members of Congress is pushing to get a a vote in the House. "We continue to see up to three million Americans who lost their benefits," said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., one of the co-sponsors and leader of last week's Witness Wednesday. "Congress seems to be oblivious. We want to show that these are real people facing the worst days of their lives. They deserve a vote."

"If you look at their stories and have one ounce of empathy," according to McFate, "you couldn't turn your back on these people."

Plan Doesn't Satisfy Boehner

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says the Republican leadership "is willing to look at any proposal that is fiscally responsible and creates private sector jobs." He says the plan being offered by Kildee and others does not meet those standards.

"It's frustrating," admits Kildee. "Virtually every issue is twisted to be a political issue. This is not a Monopoly game. These are real people."

Advocates for renewing federal benefits say that many of the long-term unemployed are seen as too old to hire but too young to retire.

Debra, the Texas woman trying desperately to get back into the workforce, has become a voice for many of the long-term unemployed. Her son is now in college, thanks to financial aid, and she is enrolled in a program to get a real estate license to start a new career. She says, "I thought for sure that after the first bill passed we had so much momentum, but I can't believe someone could be so heartless to not allow a vote."

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