CHN: Unemployment Insurance Extension Is Urgently Needed
Unless Congress acts within weeks to extend the two federal unemployment insurance (UI) programs, one million workers in March alone will exhaust their unemployment benefits. The federal programs which unemployed workers can access after the 26 weeks of state benefits have expired is critically important because the national unemployment rate currently stands at 10 percent. Over 15.3 million workers are officially unemployed with a record 6.13 million who have been unemployed for more than 6 months. UI provides a safety net for families of unemployed workers who are unable to find work in an economy where there is only one job for every 6.4 job seekers.
Congress put in place an expansion of federal unemployment benefits programs in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) enacted in February 2009. ARRA provides for the federal government to assume the full cost both of the state Extended Benefits program and any additional weeks of temporary Emergency Unemployment Compensation. ARRA also provided an increase of $25 per week for unemployed workers receiving both regular and extended benefits. In addition, ARRA provided some unemployed workers a subsidy to allow them to keep the health insurance they previously held through work. The subsidy covers 65 percent of the cost of insurance under the federal COBRA program for up to 9 months. In December, both of these vital safety net programs received a two-month extension to February 28, 2010, and the COBRA benefit was extended to 15 months.
Most economists anticipate that high unemployment rates will continue at least to the end of 2010. Based on this assumption, it is imperative that Congress pass an extension of the ARRA provisions through December 31, 2010. There is support in Congress for extending the programs, but the path to passing an extension is not clear. In December, the House passed a six-month extension of UI and COBRA in the Jobs for Main Street Act of 2010 (H.R. 2847). It is anticipated that the Senate will introduce a jobs bill within days that will not include these programs. They could be extended in a free-standing bill, attached to a jobs bill, or to other legislation. One thing is clear however. Time is running out.