Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bill extending unemployment benefits could help 35,500 Tennesseans

By Bonna Johnson • THE TENNESSEAN • September 23, 2009 Laid off more than a year ago, Sharon Loveall estimates that she has sent out 500 resumes with no luck. The former legal secretary even tried to get a job delivering pizzas. With no job prospects in sight, her final unemployment check was scheduled to come in the mail in November. But as tens of thousands of Americans like Loveall were poised to run out of such aid, the House approved an additional 13-week extension of unemployment benefits in states with high jobless rates, including Tennessee. The measure passed 331-83 on Tuesday evening, with similar legislation pending in the Senate. Though the extension would come when the economy is showing some signs of recovery, advocates say jobless rates continue to climb in many areas and the labor market has been slow to rebound. "There is no scenario where the job market will come back quickly enough and workers will be able to find jobs," said Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project. The proposed extension would help an estimated 1.3 million people nationwide who live in states with unemployment rates of at least 8.5 percent and whose benefits will run out between now and the end of the year. Tennessee had an unemployment rate of 10.8 percent in August. With an extension some people could qualify for as much as 92 weeks of unemployment pay overall. "I'm grateful I may get another 13 weeks, but I'm also horrified," Loveall said. "I hate this. You feel absolutely ashamed." An estimated 35,500 in Tennessee would be eligible for the extension, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. There are about 150,000 Tennesseans receiving unemployment benefits in total. Loveall, a 57-year-old Hendersonville resident, was laid off by a Nashville law firm in May 2008 and depends on her weekly $275 unemployment check and her elderly father to pay her mortgage and other bills. Despite 17 years of experience, she has had no job offers despite a number of interviews. "My savings are gone. I have no health insurance," she said. "Relying on my 85-year-old dad is horribly embarrassing." Benefit bridges a gap "It's safe to say we are seeing thousands of Tennesseans exhausting unemployment benefits each month," Tennessee Labor Commissioner James Neeley said. "Many of these claimants have been on unemployment for more than a year. This extension really is important to bridge the gap for those who are actively seeking work." Since July 2008, Congress twice has voted to extend unemployment benefits, and Tennessee lawmakers approved a third extension as part of the federal stimulus package earlier this year for a total of 79 weeks of benefits. Still, that hasn't been enough time for many people to find work. Some 5 million Americans have been out of work for six months or more, representing about one third of the nearly 15 million people in the country who are unemployed. That's a proportion that has never been reached in any post-war recession, according to the National Employment Law Project. It's unlikely the extension would be a disincentive for people to find jobs, Stettner said. Rather, jobs are scarce, with more than six jobless workers for every job opening in the U.S., he said. The extension would go to jobless workers in 27 states and in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. It would not add to the deficit, its sponsors say, because it would extend for a year a federal unemployment tax of $14 per employee per year that employers have been paying for more than 30 years.

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