Jobless may get benefits longer

Bill introduced in U.S. House

Staff WriterSeptember 22, 2009 

Thousands of unemployed North Carolina workers could get a 13-week reprieve if the federal government passes a bill to extend unemployment payments in states with the highest unemployment rates.

The bill, offered by Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., was introduced in the House to address the record 5 million people who have been without work for at least six months.

If it passes, unemployed workers in this state could claim a maximum of 91 weeks of unemployment payments instead of the current 78.

Right now, 52,000 people who are getting payments will exhaust their benefits in the next 120 to 180 days, said David Clegg, deputy chairman and chief operating officer for the Employment Security Commission, which oversees the state's unemployment program.

"Clearly, another 13 weeks is going to be a godsend to those people," he said.

But, until a bill is passed and the U.S. Department of Labor signs off on the new rules, Clegg said it is unclear how the extension will work.

Most important, it is still unclear whether the extension will be retroactive for people who exhaust their benefits before the extension is enacted.

"Unless it goes backwards, it means they will need to be thinking about starting a new claim," he said.

Despite the bill's designation as "emergency legislation," it may likely be October or November before the bill is passed and the funds actually start flowing, Clegg said.

It cannot come fast enough for people like Donnie Worley.

Worley, 35, was laid off in June 2008 from his job as an engineer for a company that made parts for in-ground pools.

Since then, the Sanford resident has been able to find only odd jobs and a little part-time temporary work, despite applying for more than 200 jobs. He, his wife and their three young children rely on his roughly $500 a week in unemployment to get by.

But their benefits will run out in four weeks.

"It's not that we want to stay on unemployment, but it's been a godsend to bridge the gap while I'm actively trying to find a job," Worley said.

If it doesn't come fast enough or is not retroactive, Worley will have to reapply for unemployment benefits, something that will likely mean he gets a lot less each week since the amount of the benefit check is based on the applicant's income level over the past several quarters.

"I'm assuming if I am accepted again, I'll get a lower rate of pay," he said. "I'll be making less then and we're just kind of trusting that something else will come along."

The bill is essential to help the thousands like Worley, said Louisa Warren, policy advocate for the N.C. Justice Center, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of low-income residents.

"Never in the history of the system have workers been out of work for so long," she said. "If we don't [extend the benefits], then the costs are going to pop up in other ways in our communities."

sue.stock@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4649

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