CHN: As Joblessness Rises, Congress Takes Steps to Extend Unemployment Insurance
By the end of September, more than 400,000 unemployed people will exhaust all the state and federal unemployment benefits available to them. By the end of December, if no action is taken, that number will rise to more than 1.3 million. Attempting to respond to this severe problem of long-term unemployment, the House passed a bill on September 22 providing an extra 13 weeks of federal unemployment benefits for workers in states with unemployment rates higher than 8.5 percent (H.R. 3548, the Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2009). Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA), Chair of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, sponsored the legislation, which passed with more than a two-thirds vote (331-83) in a fast-track procedure that suspended House rules and allowed no amendments. The Senate may take up the bill during the week of September 28.
Because of the economic recovery legislation passed at the beginning of this year, those who qualify for unemployment benefits in all states can receive up to 46 weeks of combined state and federal jobless aid. Where unemployment is higher than 6 percent, those who cannot find work can receive up to 59 weeks. The additional weeks provided through the economic recovery bill will expire at the end of December.
Despite this, people are running out of unemployment insurance because there simply are not enough jobs for all those seeking work. There are now 6 unemployed people for every job opening, according to testimony to the Senate Finance Committee delivered by Beth Shulman, Chair of the Board of the National Employment Law Project on September 15. At that hearing, economist Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution pointed out that this July, more than half of Unemployment Insurance claimants had exhausted their regular 26 weeks of state benefits. This is the highest percentage of exhaustees on record, far higher than the 41 percent during the 1981-1982 recession.
Final passage of H.R. 3548 is certainly needed. The August unemployment rates for states were released on September 18. Unemployment exceeded 8.5 percent in 27 states plus the District of Columbia.
Other actions to shore up unemployment compensation must also be taken. Congress needs separate legislation to continue the federal emergency benefits program which, as noted above, will expire by the end of December. In addition, state governments borrow from a federal UI trust fund to continue paying benefits when state trust funds have run out. The federal fund now needs replenishing because states have not had sufficient reserves to cope with the current high joblessness.