WASHINGTON — The jobless in those states hardest hit by the recession would get some short-term federal relief under House legislation extending unemployment benefits, already at record levels, for 13 weeks.
The bill, if enacted into law, would offer a reprieve to more than 300,000 jobless workers who are slated to run out of unemployment compensation at the end of September and the more than 1 million expected to exhaust their benefits by the end of the year. A vote was expected Tuesday evening.
“People on unemployment obviously have to continue to live. We want them to do so, and therefore to purchase food and housing — things of that nature,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
The House action reflects the continuing depressed state of the job market despite some signs that the economy is recovering. The unemployment rate now is now at 9.7 percent and economists see it topping 10 percent in 2010.
Some 5 million people, about one-third of the total unemployed, have been without a job for six months. That’s a record high since data started being recorded in 1948. There are nearly six unemployed for every available job.
“Despite promising signs of economic recovery on some fronts, the crisis of job loss and joblessness is severe and continuing,” the National Employment Law Project’s Beth Shulman told the Senate Finance Committee last week. “Employers are still shedding tens of thousands of jobs each week.”
The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., would extend benefits by up to 13 weeks for jobless workers living in those 27 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico that have unemployment rates of 8.5 percent or higher. Other states that are closing in on that threshold could also qualify later for more weeks of benefits this year, McDermott said.
The rationale is that it is more difficult and time-consuming for people in those states to find new jobs. The bill also complies with existing triggers for additional weeks of benefits for those states that hit higher levels of unemployment. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.
McDermott said the 13-week extension would apply to about three-quarters of the 400,000 people expected to exhaust their unemployment benefits this month.
The congressman contends that his bill does not add to the deficit because it raises money by extending for a year a federal unemployment tax, costing about $14 an employee per year. That tax has been on the books for 30 years, with the money going into the federal unemployment insurance trust fund. The bill would also require better reporting on new employees to reduce unemployment insurance overpayments.
Most states offer 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, with the average payment about $300 a week. As part of the stimulus act passed last February, the federal government kicked in another $25.
The stimulus act included several federal programs to help cash-strapped states and thus increasing the maximum level of benefits for the hardest-hit states to 79 weeks.
Because the recession officially began in December 2007, people getting the full 79 weeks could be running out of benefits and would be entitled to the 13-week extension.
McDermott last summer introduced broader legislation that would have extended the benefits proffered in the stimulus bill, now set to expire at the end of this year, for another year. But he decided to narrow the goals of the legislation because the bigger and far more expensive bill would have been more difficult to get through Congress.
The bill is H.R. 3548.