WASHINGTON - Jobless workers in imminent danger of losing their unemployment benefits would get a 13-week reprieve under legislation approved by the House on Tuesday.
The House bill, which applies to 27 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico with unemployment rates of 8.5 percent or higher, would add to the already-record levels of benefits that have been available to the jobless as the country struggles to recover from its prolonged economic malaise.
Unemployed residents of South Carolina would be eligible for the additional benefits. The bill would not, however, give any extra benefits to the longtime unemployed in states that have lower levels of joblessness, including Nebraska, North Dakota and Utah.
The bill passed easily, 331-83, although the two parties cast the measure in different lights. Democrats said the relief was still needed despite positive signs that their policies were reviving the economy. Republicans said the high jobless rate proved that the Obama administration's economic strategies weren't working.
The bill, if enacted, 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.
"Across America there are people who are hanging on by a thin economic lifeline called unemployment insurance," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash. "Without passage of this bill, that thread will break for over 1 million workers before the end of this year, plunging them and their families into an economic abyss and threatening to reverse the positive signs we are beginning to see in the economy."
Republican Rep. Geoff Davis of Kentucky, a state that would qualify for more benefits under the bill, said the further extension of benefits was "yet another sign of the failure of this administration's stimulus plan to create jobs."
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 9.7 percent and economists see it topping 10 percent in 2010.
Some 5 million people, about one-third of those unemployed, have been without a job for six months, the highest number since data was first collected in 1948. There are nearly six unemployed for every available job.
"The job-finding situation is still dire," said Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the research and advocacy group National Employment Law Project. "Until we figure out how to create jobs there is so much collateral damage" from neglecting to help the jobless, including people losing their homes and facing food insecurity and mental depression, he said.
States that are closing in on the threshold of 8.5 percent could be eligible 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. 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. They live in high unemployment states, which include Alabama, Arizona, California, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia.
The congressman says his bill would cost $1.4 billion but does not add to the deficit because it raises money from extension for a year of a federal unemployment tax, costing about $14 an employee per year. That tax, which brings in about $7.2 billion in a year, 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, thus increasing the maximum level of benefits for the hardest-hit states to 79 weeks.