Congress delays jobless benefits for thousands

Posted March 29, 2010, at 8:28 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 12, 2011, at 9:48 p.m.
Laura Fortman
Julia Bayly | Bangor Daily News
Laura Fortman

AUGUSTA, Maine — State labor department officials estimate more than 3,800 Mainers will lose unemployment benefits after next week, and more will follow after Congress failed to act to extend benefits before taking a two-week recess.

“It’s an administrative nightmare,” Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said Monday. “But our primary concern is really the individual who desperately needs their check to keep paying their rent or mortgage or keeping food on the table.”

She said the Maine Department of Labor has taken steps to shift Mainers that would have lost benefits next week to a temporary one-week fix allowed under federal unemployment law. But, she said, if Congress does not act on its first day back in April, there will be 3,821 Mainers who will see payments delayed.

After that first week, about 1,500 Mainers a week will exhaust benefits. She said by June 5, there are 14,280 Mainers who are expected to lose benefits.

“We are also concerned that Congress has not extended the total number of weeks that a person may get,” she said. “Right now there are about 300 Mainers a week exhausting the maximum 93 weeks of benefits. These are people who have lost their jobs and can’t find one in this recession.”

Fortman said her department has started to contact local and state office officials who deal with the various welfare programs that may provide some help to those who have exhausted all of their benefits under the various federal program tiers.

“I am very concerned about the impact this will have on these workers and their families,” Fortman said.

Another group affected by the failure of Congress to act is comprised of those who are using COBRA provisions to continue the health insurance they had with their employer. While those using the benefit will continue with no disruption, those not qualifying for unemployment after March 31 will not be eligible to use that provision of law unless Congress makes them eligible retroactively.

All four members of the state’s congressional delegation support an extension and are critical of the Congress for not passing an extension before they took a two-week recess. U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, said both parties must share the blame.

“The leadership in the Senate on both sides of the aisle has failed,” he said. “Unemployment insurance is a crucial lifeline to thousands of Mainers who are struggling to make ends meet as they look for a job. This issue is too important for too many Mainers for these political games.”

The House had passed an extension, but the Senate failed to pass it after Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., insisted it be paid for. Past extensions have been paid for by adding them to the federal deficit as part of the effort to aid workers who have lost their jobs during the recession.

Maine’s Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins issued an unusual joint statement critical of Congress taking a break without passing an extension.

“It is irresponsible that the House and Senate voted to adjourn rather than work together to come up with a bipartisan compromise to help ensure that unemployed Americans continue to receive benefits,” the statement read. “We voted for a fiscally responsible bill that would have extended unemployment benefits, health insurance subsidies for jobless workers and fair payments for doctors who treat Medicare patients. Regrettably, the leadership in the House and Democrats in the Senate blocked the opportunity to provide hardworking Americans this temporary lifeline.”

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said the Senate should have acted last week before recessing. She said many Mainers would be hurt as the result of its inaction.

“This could have a terrible impact on thousands of people in Maine still struggling to find work in the down economy,” Pingree said. “As we continue our efforts to create jobs, we can’t just turn our backs on these people and their families.”

She said Congress should make the benefits retroactive so even if payments are delayed, no one will lose benefits they expected to receive.

For the week ending March 20, there were 34,568 Mainers receiving unemployment checks totaling nearly $9.9 million. That is an average of about $285 a week.

In February the unemployment rate was 8.3 percent, up from 8.2 percent in January and 7.7 percent a year ago. The number of unemployed Mainers totaled 58,600, up 4,400 from a year ago.

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