The U.S. Senate on Tuesday failed to meet a deadline to extend federal unemployment benefits, threatening half a million Californians with the prospect of losing their benefits by the end of December.
An estimated 454,000 California job seekers are among about 2 million nationwide who will be cut off from weekly unemployment benefits by the end of the year if the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program is allowed to lapse.
California's 12.4 percent unemployment rate is the third-highest in the nation, after Nevada and Michigan, and the federal benefits have been a lifeline for long-term unemployed workers struggling to pay for basic expenses. In California, the average unemployment check is $297 a week.
"People are squeaking by. They've lost their homes and moved in with relatives," said Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project, one of several advocacy groups urging Congress to extend the benefits. "This program is not just helping unemployed workers - it's helping the economy. People spend their checks on food and gas and basic expenses. Pulling the plug on the benefits will be a huge shock to the national economy."
Extension in California
Unemployment payments typically start with 26 weeks of state benefits. After that, jobless workers can seek up to 53 weeks of federally funded Emergency Unemployment Compensation. California's unemployment rate is so high that jobless workers qualify for an additional 20-week extension of the federally funded benefits, bringing the maximum to 99 weeks total.
If the federal benefits aren't extended, many Californians would be cut off from unemployment benefits after 26 weeks. Although some Senate Democrats are promising to try again to extend the federal benefits later this month, the prospects are highly uncertain in a newly cost-conscious Congress, given that such a move would add billions to the deficit.
More than a quarter-million California residents are already considered "99ers" - which means they've exhausted the 99-week maximum.
Gloria Nieto is one of them. She lost her job at the Santa Cruz AIDS Project in March 2009. She then spiraled into a financial hole that grows deeper every day. She and her partner fell behind on mortgage payments and were forced to sell their San Jose house for less than they owed on it rather than face foreclosure. Now they rent.
Nieto, who says she has applied for more than 150 jobs, exhausted her benefits in April and says the stress of long-term unemployment has led to health complications, which in turn bring additional medical expenses. She's grateful for the $200 a month she gets in food stamps.
"I feel totally abandoned," said Nieto, 56. "Everyone is talking about the 2 million people who are about to lose their benefits. But some of us have already lost our benefits. We've been dropped by the wayside, and no one wants to deal with us."
Others, like 50-year-old Mary Kline, of San Jose, find themselves at the other end of the line. Laid off from her food service job Nov. 2, Kline visited the state employment office in Campbell on Tuesday to try to get her unemployment insurance cranked back up again. Like many in the office waiting to use the dedicated phone line to claims specialists, Kline has relied on her unemployment checks of about $200 a month off and on since first finding herself jobless last summer. After finding and then losing another job, Kline is desperate once again.
"It'll be really sad if they don't extend" benefits, said Kline, who's not sure how she'll pay for the room she rents if she has neither a job nor jobless benefits. "There's got to be someplace where people can get help. I understand now why so many people are on the streets. I'm just praying I don't end up there, but it's scary that it could happen."
Fred Cavazos, of San Jose, was in a similar quandary as the laid-off warehouseman waited to speak with a state unemployment clerk. Like many in Silicon Valley, this past decade for Cavazos has been a turbulent stretch of job, no job, contract work, unemployment checks, more contract work. Now he is again looking for help from the government in building a financial bridge until he can find work again.
"I'm hoping to reopen a claim today, but if they stop these benefits, it'll really hurt me," he said. His wife works, but the income is barely enough to pay their rent and the bills for their son and daughter and granddaughter who live with them.
"We don't go anywhere, we don't do anything - that's how we survive these days," Cavazos said. "Without my income and without unemployment insurance, there won't be much food on our table. People need to work, but sometimes people also need help to help them survive until they can find that next job."
Congress has extended unemployment benefits eight times since the recession began, most recently in July. But Republican concerns about deficit spending have made extending them further a deeply divisive political issue, with some conservatives arguing that extending unemployment benefits keeps people from taking lower-wage jobs.
Patrick Joyce, a spokesman for the state's Employment Development Department, said that 1.4 million people now receive unemployment benefits in California but that an estimated 454,000 could lose their benefits by the end of the year. Unless Congress acts, more will drop off next year.
The recently unemployed as well as the long-term unemployed are affected.
"If you lost your job Nov. 1, you'll get your 26 weeks of benefits, but at the end of the 26 weeks, that would be it," Joyce said. "And if you've been granted an extension, you would finish that extension, but then you'd be cut off. It's going to be a staggered process of people falling off the rolls."