Thousands of jobless people in North Carolina again face the prospect that their unemployment benefits will expire at the end of this month as Democrats and Republicans engage in political brinksmanship in Washington over the status of the social safety net.
If lawmakers don't act, the benefits for the jobless would be reduced from a maximum of 99 weeks to just 26 weeks. Some 2.8 million Americans, including more than 150,000 people in North Carolina, would start burning through their benefits in March if the program is not extended by Congress.
Political sparring over jobless benefits has nearly killed the extensions in recent years, but each time the program has been saved by last-minute compromises. This time, legislators are looking at reducing the extensions by as much as 40 weeks, and Republicans have proposed requiring drug testing and high-school equivalency diplomas to qualify for jobless benefits.
North Carolina's jobless benefits max out at $521 a week and average $280 a week.
Kenny Wilkes, 59, of Wilson has been receiving $274 a week (before taxes) since losing his job at a tobacco factory in July.
His wife works at a Smithfield poultry plant, and the couple could not make ends meet without the benefits, he said.
"We'd be devastated," Wilkes said. "The money my wife brings in couldn't sustain rent, gas, electric, food and insurance. We'd have to cut something out."
Wilkes spoke about his situation Friday afternoon at the Terry Sanford Federal Building and Courthouse in Raleigh as part of a public rally to extend the jobless benefits. The event was sponsored by the N.C. Justice Center, an advocacy group.
North Carolina provides benefits in several phases. The basic term is 26 weeks, which would remain intact if the extensions expire. The extensions include 53 weeks of federally funded benefit payments approved by Congress during the recession.
In addition, the program includes 20 extra weeks of benefits if a state's jobless rate over three years has not sufficiently improved. That extra tier will expire in North Carolina next month unless Congress revises the formula to base the program on the jobless rate over the past four years.