Glitch might cut extensions for many on unemployment

Posted Nov. 29, 2009, at 7:55 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Earlier this month Congress passed legislation extending unemployment benefits for up to 20 more weeks, but because of a glitch in the law’s language, not everyone who exhausted their benefits is eligible for an extension.

The measure failed to cover those whose benefits ran out between one of the several previous extensions Congress has passed.

“It’s a glitch where those that exhaust benefits between programs are not extended while most are,” said Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman. “Most are covered, but Congress needs to act to extend those other programs beyond Dec. 31.”

Fortman said the new law provides for 14 weeks of additional benefits for all states and an additional six weeks for states with unemployment rates of 8.5 percent or greater, which includes Maine.

What apparently led to the glitch is that this is the fourth benefit program extension passed by Congress and each has different “tiers” of benefits. For example, people who lost a job after July 1 of this year would receive no federal extension after they exhaust their state benefits.

The state Economic Forecast Commission is not projecting net job growth in Maine until next summer, possibly later, and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who voted for the extension, believes at least one more extension will be needed before the recession is over.

“We need to fix this problem because we will need another extension, I believe, before this recession is in recovery,” she said. “We need to provide these extensions in a timely manner.”

More than 11,000 Mainers a week were receiving extended federal benefits in November under one of the extended programs, with an average benefit of about $266 a week. In addition, more than 12,000 were receiving state benefits with an average payment of about $275 a week.

Fortman said it was the week of Aug. 8 when the first Mainers exhausted all benefits they were eligible for under state and federal law. The state program provides 26 weeks of benefits and the federal programs had various terms with differing end dates.

Those who were eligible under the most recent measure were notified by mail and sent an application. Fortman said that when Congress acts to fix the glitch, the state will again send a notice and application to those who appear to qualify.

“There are different programs out there for people who are unemployed,” said 2nd District Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine. “I think that it is very important for Congress to synchronize all these programs so people will be on the same page.”

Michaud acknowledged that Congress has a lot of issues to deal with in December and said he would not be surprised if the session continued right up to Christmas week.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, agreed and said that with Senate Democratic leadership pushing for passage of health care reform legislation by Christmas, it is important other issues such as fixing the unemployment extension not be sidetracked.

“There are six different tiers of benefits,” she said. “That has added to the confusion to what is available to whom and for how long.”

Collins said there is broad support to fix the language in the unemployment insurance laws to assure everyone receives the benefits Congress thought they had provided in the bill passed earlier this month. She said more than 2,000 Mainers are estimated to be affected if Congress does not act, and millions nationally.

“We have to make sure that these extended unemployment benefits continue to be available,” said 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. “It is a real issue here in Maine, even though the unemployment rate dropped just slightly in October. People are going to run out of benefits.”

She said that while there is broad support to fix the legislation, she shares the concern that with so many issues to consider, Congress may not pass legislation to fix the problem.

Other unresolved issues that directly affect the unemployed are three measures that were passed as part of the Recovery Act and end Dec. 31. One provides assistance to pay for health insurance payments, a second deals with a federal income tax break on unemployment insurance benefits, and the third is an extra $25 a week in unemployment benefits.

Fortman said the economic impact of unemployment benefits is a key part of the safety net during this recession, helping not only workers but also businesses throughout the state. She said economists have long said that unemployment insurance benefits help to get through a recession because of the broad impact the spending of the benefit dollars have on all sectors of the economy.

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