The clock is ticking for about 106,000 unemployed Floridians.
That's how many people will run out of unemployment benefits by Dec. 4 unless Congress passes another emergency extension during its coming lame-duck session. And every week after that, Florida officials estimate, another 41,000 jobless will join them — many of them being cut off after receiving as few as 26 weeks of paid benefits from the state.
Then, they'll become like the "99ers," those who have been paid a full 99 weeks of regular, emergency and extended benefits and then cut off while still in a job hunt.
It could be a rough transition.
Ask "99er" Max Wysong, a cabinetmaker from Seminole who was laid off in 2007 and stopped getting his $270 weekly unemployment payout in May.
At 55, Wysong has a long history of painting and doing body work in addition to making cabinets. He's used to pounding out sheet metal and old-style leadwork. But that hasn't helped him find a job. Now, after six months without benefits, he's within weeks of running out of savings and worries about how he'll be able to care for his five dogs.
"I have to pay taxes, utilities. I need a phone. I'm afraid I'm going to lose everything," he said. "I'm trying. There aren't any jobs out there."
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Debate over extending benefits has long been divisive.
Advocates for the jobless point to an analysis showing that for every $1 spent on unemployment benefits, $1.61 comes back into the economy. They say if unemployed workers are cut off from benefits, that puts more stress on other parts of the taxpayer-funded social service system.
Fiscal watchdogs object to spending billions more on payouts, adding to the mountainous federal debt. They cite studies that indicate extending benefits actually lengthens the period of time people remain unemployed.
Republican leaders, emboldened by their renewed legislative clout, have told Democrats they'll have to cut up to $14 billion from government programs to extend emergency unemployment benefits through Christmas. Last summer, Republicans unsuccessfully lobbied against an extension without identifying ways to pay for it by cutting spending elsewhere in the $3 trillion federal budget.
Even if a compromise is reached, there are no guarantees that long-term benefits would continue next year after Republicans take control of the House.
Any phaseout of benefits in Florida could be complicated, affecting people at different times depending on what stage they are in: the initial 26 weeks of state benefits, the emergency benefit federal program, or one of four extended benefit "tiers."
The Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, which oversees unemployment issues, plans a "comprehensive outreach" program online and over the phone to talk about the timing for any phaseout and relay political developments in Washington as they occur, said spokesman Robby Cunningham.
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Long-term unemployment has been a hallmark of this recession. About 6.2 million of the country's 15 million jobless have been looking for work at least six months.
The National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group lobbying for another round of extended benefits, estimates that 2 million people would lose benefits within a month if Congress doesn't approve any extension beyond Nov. 30. Florida is one of five states facing the most "premature cutoffs," the group said.
"Congress has never cut federal benefit extensions when unemployment was so high," the Law Project said in a report. "In fact, the unemployment crisis today is significantly worse than when the current package of extensions was initially enacted in July 2008."
So far this year, about 80,000 people in Florida have run out of extended benefits while still in a job hunt.
President Barack Obama this week urged another round of extended benefits, and many in Congress remain supportive, particularly to aid those being cut off shy of receiving the current maximum payout. The less likely scenario is extending benefits beyond 99 weeks.
Wysong, the unemployed cabinetmaker, still harbors a grudge against Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., who late last month blocked a bill that would have extended benefits beyond 99 weeks in hard-hit states like Florida.
"Senate Republicans have and will vote to extend unemployment compensation if it is paid for. Easy to do, but Democrats won't support it," LeMieux said at the time. "While we're all certainly sympathetic and want to work to make people go back to work — my home state of Florida (is) certainly suffering with very high unemployment — we need to know how we're going to pay for it so we don't put this debt on our children and grandchildren."
Wysong has a more immediate perspective. His voice choking, he said people who haven't been there don't understand how tough it is to get back into the workplace after being displaced.
Being 55 and on the sidelines for three years are crippling his chances with prospective employers, he said.
"It's like you've got the plague. No one wants anything to do with you," he said. "It's like you've got some kind of disease. I'm not sick, dude; I just need a job."
Information from Times wires was used in this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected]
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The National Employment Law Project was referred to by an incorrect name.
Official estimate of unemployed workers statewide
Currently receiving unemployment benefits
Unemployed who already exhausted benefits between January and October
Facing a cutoff of benefits by Dec. 4. Includes 34,000 who have only received the regular 26 weeks of state benefits and would receive no federal emergency or extended benefits.
Estimated number of recipients who will run out of benefits every week starting Dec. 4 if there is no congressional extension.
Source: Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation