The economic lifeline is gone for Debbie King and another 106,000 Floridians losing unemployment coverage effective this weekend because Congress let the extended benefits program expire.
A compromise tied to extending the Bush tax cuts may be inching closer in Congress. But even if the extended benefits program is reactivated, there could be a delay in getting money to jobless who have been cut off.
Last summer, when Congress let extended benefits lapse and then voted to restart them, it took several weeks for the restart to kick in for Florida recipients.
For King, a 30-year-old Tampa resident, that means the unemployment check she claimed Tuesday will be the last she'll receive. At least for a while. It means breaking her rental lease — potentially damaging her credit — and moving in with her sister-in-law. It means buckling down even more this holiday season.
She doesn't discuss the circumstances much with her 10-year-old daughter. "Right now, she wants to get presents for my family," she said. "That's hard."
King had been claiming $600 in unemployment aid every two weeks, minus the credits that were taken out for part-time work she found babysitting and fundraising for a consumer group.
Her timing was off. Her payout check this week happened to be the last one she was eligible for under the fourth tier of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation federal benefits, or EUC.
If the extended benefits program, known as EB, were still in place, King would have advanced to receiving up to another 20 weeks of payments. That would have carried her through April, assuming her job search continues to be fruitless.
After graduating from college with a biology degree, King worked for Capital One, taught high school and worked for the Florida Consumer Action Network until she was laid off in April 2009. She's been primarily seeking administrative office jobs — "anything that will be able to pay my bills" — but hasn't gotten beyond the interview stage.
Out of 9 million jobless receiving unemployment benefits nationally, 5 million have exhausted their 26 weeks of state benefits and are on some level of federal, extended benefits.
Nationally, nearly 2 million stand to lose unemployment benefits by the end of the month. Come April, unless Congress intervenes, only those somewhere in their initial 26 weeks of coverage will still be left in the system.
Currently, about 588,000 out of an estimated 1.1 million jobless Floridians are receiving some level of unemployment aid: either the initial state benefit, the Emergency Unemployment Compensation federal benefits that follow or the final stage of extended benefits. Every week, about 41,000 more will stop receiving unemployment checks if they can't advance to their next level of extended payouts.
A spokesman for the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, which oversees unemployment payouts, said it's unclear how long it would take to re-start the program if an extension is passed. The time line would depend on such variables as how much programming is involved under conditions set by the bill, how long it takes to determine reimbursements of missed payments based on when the bill is enacted, and specific instructions by the U.S. Labor Department.
"As with all extensions, implementing the program would become the top priority of the programming staff and every effort would be made to get the payments out to those who qualify as soon as possible," agency spokesman Robby Cunningham said.
To advocates of extending benefits, a grim jobs report Friday underscored the need to distribute more aid to the long-term jobless as soon as possible.
In November, the number of Americans out of work for six months or longer swelled to 6.3 million, with unemployed people searching for work for an average of 33.8 weeks. The national unemployment rate rose to a six-month high of 9.8 percent representing 15.1 million jobless.
Republican leaders have long said the sticky issue is not extending unemployment benefits, but identifying a way to pay for it.
The U.S. Senate blocked a bill proposed by Democrats last month to extend unemployment insurance, but many expect a compromise before the lame duck session ends later this month. One oft-discussed scenario is tying extended benefits to at least a short-term extension of the Bush tax cuts for everyone. Democrats oppose keeping the tax cuts for households making more than $250,000 a year.
"I think if this does work out, it'll be very temporary," said Trev Riley, a 29-year-old Tampa resident on his ninth month of unemployment benefits. "If you're counting on the benefits, I would not hold my breath."
Riley and his wife moved to Israel after he graduated from the University of South Florida two years ago with a degree in economics. They moved back to the States a year ago.
"I flew back to get a better job," he said, "and I guess I chose the wrong time."
Times wires contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at email@example.com.
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