Text by Mara Lee, Hartford Courant; video by Angelica Spanos, FOX CT
If Congress doesn’t act, about 24,000 people who are receiving unemployment benefits from the state of Connecticut will be cut off three days after Christmas.
That’s 35 percent of all the people who get the support — those who have been looking for work for more than half a year but less than 63 weeks, the maximum amount of time to receive checks.
When the federal extension expires, the maximum length of time for Connecticut unemployment benefits would drop to 26 weeks, the typical duration in good economic times.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said a failure to renew the program would be unconscionable, unfair, even immoral. “People are unaware of both its importance or its imminent end,” he said. “And the people who receive it are often invisible and voiceless.”
Federal unemployment benefits did not make it into the budget deal reached Tuesday. That deal lessens the impact of across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester. The sequester itself reduced unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed — by 19 percent in Connecticut — so people who had been receiving about $500 a week started getting about $400 after it took effect.
Republicans opposed to the extension say that the estimated $26 billion cost over the next year is too much to add to the deficit, and that overly generous unemployment checks influence job seekers to be too picky.
The average unemployment check in Connecticut is $352 a week, and the federal program is paying out $8.7 million a week, according to the state’s Department of Labor, which also calculated how many people will lose their benefits. The money is a loan to the state’s unemployment compensation system and will eventually be paid back by higher unemployment taxes on state employers.
Blumenthal said: “What I hear from the opponents is we can’t afford it. My view is we can’t afford not to.”
‘Sense Of Dread’
Jessica Kruh, 27, has been receiving $270 a week to support herself and her 5-year-old son since May, when she lost the $12.40-an-hour receptionist job she had held for two years.
Kruh, who has a certificate in medical coding, didn’t land her first interview until October. Since then, she has interviewed for five jobs. Two, she didn’t get. She’s still waiting to hear from the other three.
She was a finalist, but not hired, for a receptionist job at a plumbing supply company, where the manager told her that they had 50 applications in the first day.
“You want to be hopeful, but you also want to be realistic,” she said. “There’s a lot of really good candidates who are unemployed right now.”
It’s the imbalance between the number of job seekers and number of jobs that means the program is still needed, its advocates say. Betsey Stevenson, an economist and a member of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, spoke recently with reporters about the prospects of more than 1 million people nationwide losing their benefits on Dec. 28.
Stevenson said the program is designed to gradually taper down as the job situation improves, and that has already happened. At the height of unemployment, people had been able to collect benefits for 99 weeks.
She said there is no evidence that large numbers of people choose not to take jobs because they receive benefits, which cover about half of their former salaries. Rather, she said, studies show that people are more likely to keep trying to find work after months of rejection if they are still receiving checks.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said he disagrees with Republicans who say that unemployment checks are an incentive for people not to work.
Kruh said, “People who say that don’t know what it’s like.” Her boyfriend, Patrick Sullivan, 26, said, “You can do everything within your power to find a job, and it still may not be there.”
A month before Kruh lost her job, she and Sullivan moved from an $850-a-month apartment in New Britain to an $1,100-a-month apartment in Rocky Hill, because she didn’t want her son in New Britain public schools.
Sullivan, a shift leader at CVS, picks up overtime whenever he can. But if Kruh’s checks are cut off before she finds a job, the combination of their rent and utilities would take all but $100 of Sullivan’s monthly after-tax pay, not enough to cover car insurance, gas and food. While she would qualify for more food stamps than the $187 a month she gets now, she would be forced to go on welfare, she said, something she’s trying hard to avoid.
Blumenthal said: “Peoples’ lives will be upended, whether by moving into their families’ homes, or moving out of state, or sacrificing basic needs for their children. People who are receiving this unemployment insurance have no cushion. They have no financial cushion.”
Stevenson, of the president’s council, said that private-sector economists estimated the amount of damage to the broader economy if unemployment benefits are cut back to just 26 weeks. There would be a drop in gross domestic product, and 240,000 fewer jobs nationwide as a result, she said.
“When these families are forced to stop spending, their reduction in spending hurts all of us,” she said.
Courtney was pessimistic that the House of Representatives would agree to renew the program before it expires, but said that if constituents call Congress to complain about the harm the end of benefits caused, they could revisit the matter in January.
But many long-term unemployed people feel stigmatized by their situation and are reluctant to speak out.
A Hamden woman with a chemistry degree, unable to find a job since her contract ended in February at Sikorsky, did not want to talk for this story because she was embarrassed for people to know what her family’s going through. She said she’d had eight years experience at United Technologies Corp in various white-collar jobs.
A business analyst with an MBA has had four spells of unemployment since she was downsized from Pitney Bowes six years ago, even as she’s repeatedly landed contract jobs at Connecticut’s major corporations. The latest spell began when her contract with Prudential ended in January. The Seymour woman wanted to talk about what she’s facing but did not want her name published.
“External pressure, that has really been the only reliable lever that gets this place to move,” Courtney said.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he believes that the program will be renewed. He said it has broad public support, and it’s clear that the checks provide a benefit to the economy.
“I have a feeling Republicans will ultimately come around,” he said.
Kruh said while she thinks her son’s Christmas will still be merry with gifts and festive meals with their extended families, it’s a struggle to feel thankful for her blessings with this hardship looming — and the emotional roller coaster of applying for jobs and waiting for responses.
“I’m just feeling more of a sense of dread,” she said.