After working for 14 years as a billing specialist, Uzorigwe Alintah has not earned a paycheck for a year. He is among many in the Seattle area and one of 4.1 million nationwide — nearly 40 percent of the 10.9 million jobless — who have been unemployed for more than six months.
This week, Alintah joined another unenviable group: He is among the millions who are out of work but no longer receiving unemployment benefits.
Alintah’s weekly unemployment checks are stopping because Congress didn’t renew emergency aid that had stretched the normal 26 weeks of state benefits by additional 37 weeks. Benefits for 25,000 Washington residents and 1.3 million people around the country ran out on Dec. 28.
As a result, only about a quarter of out-of-work Americans are receiving unemployment benefits, the smallest share since such federal record-keeping began in 1950, according to the National Employment Law Project.
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“I’m worried, you know. How am I going to pay my bills? How am I going to live?” Alintah said Thursday at a round-table in Seattle organized by U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina.
DelBene and her fellow congressional Democrats want to make restoring the expired benefits a political priority as they return from the holiday recess. Senate Democrats are scheduled to hold a vote on a three-month extension Monday.
Most Republicans oppose it. They say after nearly six years, the extended aid has lasted long enough and shouldn’t continue without further spending cuts to offset its $25 billion annual tab.
Of the 88 co-sponsors of the two bills in the House and the Senate to renew the emergency benefits, only Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, which has the nation’s highest unemployment rate with 9 percent, is a Republican.
Sen. Patty Murray pushed to include extended unemployment aid in the budget agreement she struck with Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin last month, but Republicans rebuffed it.
The partisan split comes as the nation continues to rebound from the Great Recession even while millions of Americans who want to work can’t find jobs. On top of the 10.9 million unemployed, 7.7 million have settled for part-time jobs when they’d rather work full time. Another 762,000 people have given up job hunting altogether.
During the depth of the unemployment crisis in Washington, from November 2009 to April 2012, the jobless qualified for up to 99 weeks of benefits. But those benefits have tapered off as the economy recovered.
The state’s unemployment rate in November was 6.8 percent.
Rep. Dave Reichert, an Auburn Republican who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax issues, said through a spokeswoman that repeatedly renewing the emergency benefits since they began in 2008 has greatly added to the deficit.
Not only that, Reichert said, the benefits have “stifled new job creation” by giving people a disincentive to find work. He noted that unemployed people in Washington will still get 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits funded by a tax on employers.
“There remains a safety net for those who have fallen on hard times. I will continue to work to make sure they get that assistance,” he said.
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the spending power from renewing 37 weeks of emergency benefits for a year would generate an estimated 200,000 full-time jobs by fourth quarter of 2014 by stimulating demand for goods and services. Some job seekers may slacken their search as a result. But negative effects would be modest, the CBO said, because any available jobs likely would be claimed by someone not collecting jobless benefits.
At the round-table at North Seattle Community College, DelBene said Congress can and should find ways to cut unneeded programs in order to pay for extended jobless benefits.
DelBene, a millionaire former Microsoft executive, said her father was laid off from his job as a pilot for some six months when she was young. A job isn’t just a paycheck, she said, but a source of dignity.
Elaine Kim cried as she told DelBene about desperately seeking work along with thousands of other jobless applicants. Kim has been using her unemployment benefits to pay gas, clothes and other job-hunting expenses.
“Should I drive to Bellevue and pay the $8 to get across the bridge?” she said, adding that she’s luckier than others for whom unemployment benefits is “their food and shelter.”
Kim believes lawmakers in Congress unfairly blame unemployed people for their own plight.
Addressing DelBene, Kim said, “I hope you guys will get your act together and help us.”
Another attendee, Robert Benson, spent 17 years in health-care billing, but was laid off and has been relying on unemployment checks to get by.
“I have savings that will probably last me a few more months paying my current mortgage and bills, but after that, I don’t know.”
Without the federally funded emergency aid, nearly 2 million Americans, including 37,600 Washingtonians, are on schedule to max out unemployment benefits between now and the end of June.
The average duration of unemployment benefits in Washington in the past year was 16.2 weeks, said Bill Tarrow, spokesman for the Department of Employment Security.
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