Valley residents out of work six months or longer don’t have to worry about losing their unemployment insurance benefits for another five weeks under a $10 billion measure passed by the U.S. Senate late Tuesday and signed into law by President Barack Obama.
The bill, which also provides stopgap funding for highway programs, was held up for days by Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who conceded after political pressure and extended unemployment benefits and health insurance subsidies for those without jobs.
An estimated 400,000 Americans would have lost unemployment benefits during the first weeks of this month if the legislation was not approved, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. By May, nearly 3 million would be left without these benefits.
In Arizona, 8,300 would lose their unemployment benefits during the first weeks of this month, while 82,000 could ultimately lose benefits, according to the department.
“The bottom line is a great number of people who were going to be losing their benefits in the next couple of weeks will not,” said Mike Trupo, department spokesman. “There should not be any gap in payments.”
The extension in benefits is crucial to many Arizonans who have been unable to find work for many months, said Steve Meissner, director of communications for the Department of Economic Security.
The first 26 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits are paid through the state unemployment fund, which is funded through a tax on employers, he said. Benefits that go beyond 26 weeks are covered through federal funds, he said.
“If you’re out of work for six months … you’ve burned through most, if not all, of your savings, you’ve run up your credit card balances trying to keep things afloat and you might already have hit up your relatives. So you’re tapped out,” Meissner said. “At this time, the federal program really starts to affect you. That money becomes really important. It could be the difference between food and cat food, or having a roof over your head or living in your car.”
The extension is good news, but only for the next 30 days, he said. This is the second extension of federal benefits this year, he said.
“Democrats are talking about extending it through the rest of 2010, and that’s the sticking point,” Meissner said. “Republicans are saying ‘How are we going to pay for this? Are we going to add to the deficit again?’”
The number of Arizonans receiving unemployment insurance benefits fluctuates week to week, but overall the weekly average has jumped from 25,000 to 30,000 in December 2008 to 173,000 per week now, he said.
“Most states have run out of money in their state program and are borrowing money, and Arizona is about to find itself in that same situation where the state fund is going to be exhausted or pretty close to exhausted,” Meissner said. “We expect to have to borrow money this month starting in increments of $50 million to keep things afloat, and that’s a loan that will have to be repaid. We had about $1 billion in reserves, and just like those who have been using up their reserves while looking for work, Arizona’s unemployment fund has been depleted.”