Unemployed Left With Congressional Inaction on Jobless Bill

When Congress left town last week, it left the future of an unemployment insurance bill (search-- and unemployed voters like Sylvester Harvey -- up in the air.

Since his software development contract ended in June, Harvey has been looking for another job while he, his wife and his son try to make ends meet on his weekly unemployment check and her paycheck.

Despite networking, passing out business cards and going to employment seminars, Harvey is still looking for work. And his unemployment runs out in January -- too late to qualify for a federal 13-week extension of benefits for anyone whose unemployment runs out by Dec. 27.

While House Republicans and Democrats both have proposed bills that would renew the extension of benefits past the Dec. 27 deadline, they could not agree on a bill this session. And with Congress back after Thanksgiving for what is expected to be only a brief period before winter recess, Harvey is left hanging.

"They've been talking about, 'the economy is improving,'" Harvey said of lawmakers last month. "There seems to be a lag between what they're saying and what is actually happening."

Harvey is not alone. Unemployed workers in most states are eligible for only 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits.

Under the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act (search), which passed in March 2002, unemployed workers who exhaust their state benefits are eligible for another 13 weeks of benefits from the federal government.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (search) estimates that by the end of December, 2.2 million workers will have exhausted their temporary federal extensions. And while temporary extended unemployment compensation has been renewed by Congress three times, they are currently set to expire Dec. 27. 

"In January, about 90,000 unemployed workers are likely to exhaust their regular, state benefits each week, but absent congressional action, none of these people would be eligible for TEUC aid," the center wrote in a report about the unemployment act earlier this month.

Democrats in the House and Senate were pushing bills that would extend federal unemployment benefits for a fourth time.

Their bills would grant another 26 weeks of benefits to people like Harvey, who are looking for work and exhaust their state benefits after the Dec. 27 deadline. They would also grant an additional 13 weeks to anyone who has already received 13 weeks of federal benefits under the previous extensions and is still looking for work.

"It's not only the right thing to do from a compassionate point of view and the right thing to do from an economic point of view, the money is there for this specific purpose," said Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., a lead sponsor of the Democratic bill.

Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., introduced a competing bill, meanwhile, that would simply extend the current 13-week federal grant for another six months -- the same approach Congress has been taking for the last two years.

But Republican leaders were reluctant to bring any bill out of committee this fall, saying at the time that an extension of benefits might be premature.

"The economy is rebounding, is growing stronger," said a Republican staffer on the House Ways and Means Committee. "So members are going to want to evaluate the economy."

While Congress wrangles, however, thousands more employees are expected to lose their benefits, according to an October report by the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee (search).

For Harvey, the weekly check of less than $300 does not come anywhere near his former salary, but "it helps," he said. He would welcome an extension of benefits, but is quick to add that he will not relax on the job search, whether the extra money comes or not.

"What I really need is a job, not the unemployment benefits," Harvey said.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.