Jobless Benefit Gap Opens Even As Recession Eases
By Jason White, Assistant Staff Writer
Despite recent indications the national economy is pulling out of its nearly yearlong slump, unemployment is a continuing problem in the states, as more than a million laid-off workers have exhausted their jobless benefits in recent months.
The number of workers running out of benefits is the highest since the recession of the mid-1970s. In January alone, 356,000 workers exhausted benefits, and over a million more will do so over the next few months, according to an analysis from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
In response, three states -- Hawaii, Oregon and Wisconsin -- have moved to extend the period of time during which laid-off workers can collect benefits, which in most states is 26 weeks.
"The least we can do is offer our displaced workers a safety net to help them get through this challenging time," said Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum, in a February press release announcing the extension.
Wisconsin's additional benefits will cost the state roughly $109 million and will be pulled from the state's Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.
A handful of other states may follow soon, either by extending benefits or increasing benefit payments.
"There are some pretty heated debates going on in a few states. Those include New Jersey, Michigan and Virginia," said Cheye Calvo, director of the employment and insurance program of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Three states -- Alaska, Oregon and Washington -- recently qualified for a long-standing federal program that partially funds 13-week benefit extensions in states with severe unemployment.
Oregon and Washington became eligible to provide additional benefits starting the week of January 12. Alaska became eligible to do the same starting the week of February 24. Qualifying states and the federal government split the cost of these extensions.
Rising to 8 percent in January, Oregon's unemployment rate remains the highest among the states and is far above the national average, which edged down from 5.8 percent in December to 5.6 percent in January. Washington's January unemployment rate was 7.5 percent. Alaska's stood at 5.9 percent.
In addition to having the country's highest unemployment rate, Oregon also boasts its longest benefits period. Once the state-mandated extension kicks-in in April, laid-off workers will be able to collect benefits for up to a full year.
In most recessions going back to the 1960s, the federal government has fully-funded an extension of unemployment benefits. It has not moved to do so this time, however, as measures to extend benefits have been entangled in a House-Senate impasse over economic stimulus legislation.
"There's still some hope the federal government will step up," said the NCSL's Calvo. "But there's some movement among the states to address it themselves. They are hoping for federal action, but [are] doing what they can on their own."