99 week maximum for jobless benefits may drop as low as 59 weeks

Cleveland Plain Dealer - January 27, 2012
By Olivera Perkins
Peope receiving unemployment benefits in Ohio will probably see the maximum weeks they can get slashed. Falling jobless rates and a Republican proposal in Congress calling for fewer weeks are among the reasons for the projected change. Here Joyce Redmond (left) talks with Helen Venes (right) about job opportunities at a career fair in Brookpark last fall.

People thrust out of work in Ohio might have to settle for a much shorter period of unemployment benefits.

Jobless workers here have been able to count on 99 weeks of benefits, but the maximum could fall to as low as 59 weeks.

That possibility raises a divisive question: Is 99 weeks — almost two years — too long to draw jobless benefits?

Here’s how the system works:

Regular unemployment compensation lasts 26 weeks. Congress repeatedly has extended those benefits to a 79-week maximum. In states like Ohio, with exceptionally high unemployment rates, jobless recipients qualify for 20 more weeks.

But Ohio’s unemployment rate has been declining, to 8.1 percent in December, and that means the 20-week extension may disappear.

In addition, although Congress has extended the 99-week limit until February, Republicans have pushed for a 59-week limit after that. Supporters and opponents alike think the 99-week maximum will disappear.

They don’t agree that it should.

Zach Schiller, research director at the liberal Policy Matters Ohio, a non-profit research organization focused on economic policy, said Congress should maintain 99 weeks because unemployment remains high.

“In previous recessions, Congress has never sought to eliminate these programs at a time when unemployment was above 7.2 percent,” Schiller said. “We haven’t seen this long a period of high unemployment in many decades. To just continue business as usual as if things have gone back to normal is inappropriate.”

James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., supports a 60-week maximum, in light of falling unemployment.

“Going up to two years is excessive given the current labor market,” he said.

With a 60-week maximum, about 48,500 of the more than 250,000 people in Ohio currently receiving jobless benefits would become ineligible, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. The bulk of the state’s unemployment insurance recipients, about 143,000 people, receive 26 weeks or less. The average weekly unemployment check in Ohio in 2011 was $291.98.

About 20,000 Ohioans had been scheduled to lose benefits this month until the Legislature extended the 20-week addition on Tuesday. Michael Dittoe, spokesman for Ohio House Speaker William G. Batchelder, said the Legislature extended the program because the federal government pays for it.

Eileen Selbe of Cleveland, a laid-off payroll specialist, and Ken Rapoport, a former owner of Peerless Packages in Cleveland, are happy their benefits won’t be abruptly cut off.

Rapoport said he has about a month of benefits left. He is glad to receive them; meeting expenses is already a strain.

Selbe said her benefits could last until spring with another federal extension. House and Senate negotiators are trying to work out an agreement before Feb. 27.

Selbe and Rapoport illustrate why the debate about 99 weeks is heated. When they lost their jobs, both thought they would find work within six months.

The number of unemployed workers who have exhausted 99 weeks of benefits has crept up, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. They accounted for more than 14 percent of the unemployed in 2011, up from an average of 9 percent in 2010.

Long-term unemployment — at least 27 weeks — has persisted in Ohio and nationally. In December, the long-term unemployed represented 42.5 percent of all jobless workers. Ohio’s current figure is about the same.

For the same reason, the number of jobless workers with unemployment benefits is dropping. Currently, 57 percent receive benefits compared with 75 percent in 2010.

Sometime this year, Ohio probably will fail to qualify for the additional 20 weeks of jobless benefits. This will probably will happen when the state’s three-month average unemployment rate is 10 percent lower than the three-month average from three years earlier. Many project it may occur as early as spring. As a reference point, Ohio’s jobless rate in May 2009 was 10.8 percent.

This formula needs to be revised, said Rick McHugh, a staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, which is lobbying Congress to keep the 99 weeks.

“When people say 99 weeks is too much, you have to say: ‘What is the alternative?’ ” he said. “People are not going to magically go back to work just because you take away their benefits. They can only go back to work if there are jobs.”

Without the extension, the government will pay in other ways, including people going on public assistance, disability and taxing the safety net, he said.

But Sherk, of The Heritage Foundation, said longer periods of jobless benefits discourage people from looking for work. It would be better if the government gave states money so they could come up with inventive programs to put people back to work.

“Right now, there is no innovation in the system,” he said. “There is no attempt to help the unemployed other than saying how many more weeks can we cut you a check for?”

Rapoport, the former factory owner, resents such thinking. He said it draws upon stereotypes, including those that the long-term unemployed can’t find work because they lack training and education or are too lazy to look for a job.

Rapoport, 60, said the reality is that many qualified people can’t land jobs, especially older workers like him.

“I want to work,” said Rapoport, adding that benefits should exceed 99 weeks. “My personal belief is that our government owes us everything that is possible as long as we demonstrate that we are actively looking for work.”

Selbe, the laid off payroll specialist, agreed. She said this is the first time in her life that she hasn’t been able to find a job and it hasn’t been for a lack of trying.

Selbe, 61, recalled the excitement of landing a job interview and then the humiliation of instantly being rejected because she believed the employer thought her too old.

“I got all gussied up and went to the job site,” she said. The staffing agency “said the employer would probably want me to take a test. He instantly saw that I was older and said he would give me the test if I absolutely insisted. I said: ‘No. That is all right.’

“I guess for them to have considered me I would have had to have been 20 years younger with the same amount of experience,” Selbe said.

She continues to look for work. Selbe hopes Congress will extend 99 weeks of benefits at least until April. That is when she turns 62 and will be eligible to draw early Social Security benefits.

“I always planned to work until I was 70,” she said. “Right now I don’t know if that is going to happen.”

99 week maximum for jobless benefits may drop as low as 59 weeks
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