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State must act for some Floridians to get extended unemployment benefits

Ending a months-long political deadlock, Congress is poised to authorize retroactive unemployment payments to more than 2 million jobless who were shut off from receiving long-term benefits. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the legislation this week.

That's good news for nearly 250,000 Floridians who have run out of unemployment benefits over the past couple months.

At least for most of them.

Thousands are still out of luck if they are entering their final 20 weeks of benefits or were at that level when Congress first refused to extend the program in May.

The Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, the agency charged with overseeing unemployment, offers this interpretation of how Washington's latest maneuvers will trickle down to Florida:

• The basic, state-funded program for up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits remains unchanged.

• With Congress acting this week, Florida doesn't need to take additional steps for eligible Floridians to get up to 53 more weeks of emergency unemployment compensation (or EUC) through four different tiers.

• The only program requiring state action is the federal extended benefits program (or EB) that kicks in after someone uses up both the state's 26 weeks and 53 weeks of emergency unemployment compensation. The program tacks on another 20 weeks of benefits, bringing total coverage up to a maximum of 99 weeks.

Florida's extended benefit period ended on June 5. So state legislation extending the deadline would be necessary to allow long-term jobless Floridians to take advantage of those final 20 weeks.

Democrats in the state Legislature made a fruitless plea for the Republican-controlled Legislature to take up the issue in its brief special session this week.

Rep. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, on Wednesday called for Gov. Charlie Crist to either call another special session or endorse the extended benefits through executive order.

Rader wrote in a letter to the governor: "You and I share the same concerns about our unemployed workers who have exhausted their eligible weeks of unemployment compensation benefits, and it is our duty to help them."

As of Wednesday afternoon, Crist had not responded.

Every week since the congressional logjam began in May, about 35,000 Floridians have lost unemployment aid because they couldn't cycle into the next tier of either emergency benefits or extended benefits.

Irene Spunde of North Tampa lost her benefits about a month ago after about 60 weeks on unemployment.

Though she hopes for a retroactive payment, Spunde acknowledges confusion over the whole process as she moved from one tier to another. Getting conflicting information from unemployment representatives at the Agency for Workforce Innovation doesn't help, she said.

But one thing's clear: losing her benefits affected her finances immediately. She had to negotiate this week with the sewer company and fears having her electricity shut off.

A registered Republican, Spunde, 58, now prefers to call herself a conservative, frustrated over the political fight.

"Some of the politicians are well meaning, but you can't penalize individuals after they've already (given) these billions of dollars in bailouts for corporations that are poorly managed," she said.

"Now you want to cut off individuals from money that's going to help them save their homes? It's that much harder to find a job if you're out on the street."

State must act for some Floridians to get extended unemployment benefits 07/21/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 22, 2010 3:25pm]
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