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Millions Counting on Congress to Extend Unemployment Benefits

December 1, 2011 - Posted by Ron Bigler

More than six million Americans are facing the potential loss of a financial lifeline if Congress fails to pass an extension of emergency unemployment benefits which expires on December 31.

The recently introduced Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act is awaiting action in Congress. Like previous emergency extensions, the bill would allow laid-off workers to collect up to 99 weeks of benefits, rather than the usual 26 weeks provided under most state programs.

At a press conference this week in Washington, unemployed workers joined members of Congress and workers rights advocates in calling on Congress to pass an extension. They also delivered a petition with more than 75,000 signatures.

"Unemployment compensation right now is our essential lifeline," said Jill Fleming-Salopek, a laid-off teacher from Munhall, Pa., who spoke at the press event. "My husband, who is also a teacher, is working, and the unemployment benefits are a critical supplement to that income for our family because we not only have our three kids but my mother, who is quadriplegic and suffers from MS, lives with us as well. If Congress does not reauthorize the federal unemployment extensions before December 31st, at that point I would have only 13 more weeks of benefit eligibility – and then no federal unemployment benefits at all."

The extension bill has drawn support from Democrats, including U.S. Reps. Sander Levin of Michigan, Lloyd Doggett of Texas, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and James Clyburn of South Carolina, along with Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

Advocacy groups, including the National Employment Law Project (NELP), USAction, AFL-CIO and MomsRising.org, are urging Congress to extend emergency unemployment benefits through 2012.

"It is simply a no-brainer that Congress has to renew unemployment insurance through 2012. These modest payments help unemployed workers and their families stay afloat and they keep money flowing into local businesses. It’s time to put politics aside, renew these programs, and move on to other measures to create good jobs and get the economy back on track," said NELP Executive Director Christine Owens.

In a recent report, Hanging On By a Thread, NELP found that the states of California, Florida, New York, Texas, and New Jersey have the largest number of unemployed workers facing the loss of benefits.

Congress has extended long-term unemployment benefits nine times since 2008. However, conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation have been urging Congress not to renew the extension, with some making the argument that the benefits are too generous and keep people from seeking work. And some Republicans in Congress have been raising the issue of costs, demanding that an extension be offset by spending cuts elsewhere.

But as NELP and others have pointed out, extended unemployment benefits are playing a vital role in boosting the economy and have kept millions of people from falling into poverty. NELP also notes that Congress has never let emergency unemployment benefits expire while the unemployment rate was above 7.2 percent. The national unemployment rate was 9 percent in October.

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