Extended jobless benefits start ending

By Tami Luhby, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Depending on extended unemployment benefits to see you through the Great Recession?

You'd better not: The Senate failed to push back the Feb. 28 deadline to apply for this safety net.

Starting Monday, the jobless will no longer be able to apply for federal unemployment benefits or the COBRA health insurance subsidy.

Federal unemployment benefits kick in after the basic state-funded 26 weeks of coverage expire. During the downturn, Congress has approved up to an additional 73 weeks, which it funds.

These federal benefit weeks are divided into tiers, and the jobless must apply each time they move into a new tier.

Because the Senate did not act, the jobless will now stop getting checks once they run out of their state benefits or current tier of federal benefits.

That could be devastating to the unemployed who were counting on that income. In total, more than one million people could stop getting checks next month, with nearly 5 million running out of benefits by June, according to the National Unemployment Law Project.

Lawmakers repeatedly tried to approve a 30-day extension this week, but each time, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., prevented the $10 billion measure from passing, saying it needs to be paid for first.

"Right now, the 1.2 million workers who will lose benefits in March are being held hostage by partisan attempts to delay and block this critical legislation," said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project.

Senate Democrats plan to introduce legislation this week that pushes back the deadline as much as a year, an aide said. The House approved a bill in December that extended the deadline to the end of June.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said on "Fox News Sunday" that Republicans will support a temporary extension of the deadline this week. But he said there would be debate over how to pay for a more long-term extension, saying Republicans want to know how the government will pay for the extended benefits.

Of course, once the measure is approved, the jobless would be able to reapply for federal benefits, though they would not receive missed payments.

Critical checks

About 11.5 million people currently depend on jobless benefits. Nearly one in 10 Americans are out of work and a record 41.2% have been unemployed for at least six months. The average unemployment period lasts a record 30.2 weeks.

The unemployment rate, which now stand at 9.7%, is expected to rise in February as snowstorms in many states disrupted the economy and stalled hiring.

While unemployment benefits now run as long as 99 weeks, depending on the state, not everyone will receive checks for that long a stretch if the deadline to apply is not extended.

Those extended benefits are vital, experts said. While the economy is slowly recovering, hiring is expected to remain slow in coming years. The unemployment rate is expected to remain at about 10% this year, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers, and won't fall back to its 2008 level of 5.8% for another seven years.

"Those benefits will expire, but the need to heat their homes and put gas in their cars doesn't expire," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Friday. "Those benefits will expire, but the need to take their medicine, or support an aging parent, or take care of their children doesn't expire.

Congressional gridlock

The jobless have anxiously watched from the sidelines as efforts to push back the deadlines took many twists and turns in recent weeks.

The extensions were included in an $85 billion bipartisan job creation draft bill that was unveiled in the Senate earlier this month. But then Reid decided to introduce a slimmed-down version that stripped them out, forcing lawmakers to vote on them as a stand-alone measure this week.

In order to speed the process along, the House on Thursday passed a bill extending the deadline to apply for unemployment insurance to April 5 and for COBRA benefits to March 28. That way, the Senate could have just approved the legislation and sent it directly to the president's desk.

However, Bunning's continued objection blocked Senate approval of the bill Friday.

This is not the first time unemployment insurance benefits -- which enjoy wide bipartisan support -- have fallen prey to politics. Last fall, the House approved adding up to 20 weeks to the federal benefits period. But it took seven weeks for the Senate to send it to the president's desk, during which time more than 200,000 people stopped receiving checks.

When lawmakers finally took up the measure, it passed by a 98-0 vote.  To top of page

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