AUGUSTA, Maine — When the unemployment rate in Maine fell in September, it was considered good news.
But for about 2,000 Mainers, it was bad news, as it triggered the loss of extended unemployment benefits. If Congress does not act this month, even more will lose benefits.
“That’s the way Congress set up the extended benefits: in tiers based on state unemployment rates,” said Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman. “When we went below 8 percent in September, it took our rolling three-month average down below the trigger for that level of extended benefits.”
Maine’s rate was 7.7 percent in September, well below the national rate of 9.6 percent. She said Congress has passed extended benefits over the course of the recession in various ways and has set up a complicated system in which the maximum weeks of benefits in Maine is capped at 93; not 99, as in many states.
Fortman said her staff is working to identify those who may exhaust their benefits before the end of this month. She said “thousands more” are expected to lose benefits at the end of the month if Congress does not extend unemployment further.
Whether there will be an extension is far from certain. In addition to the basic 26 weeks of benefits paid from the state unemployment trust fund, Congress has extended benefits well beyond the state program limit to 99 weeks for those in the hardest-hit regions of the nation.
“People are still hurting, and we need to have a further extension of unemployment benefits,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. She has supported several increases and wanted a longer extension than was passed in September, when Congress voted to extend benefits to Nov. 30.
Even though economists are saying the recession is over, she said, job growth tells a different story. She said the “safety net” of unemployment benefits should be continued until job growth starts to meet the demand of out-of-work Mainers.
Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said he hopes an agreement can be worked out for an extension that “cleans up” the differences in the existing law and extends benefits at least through January, when the new Congress takes office.
“There are still a lot of people that need help, and we should provide another extension,” he said. “This should not be a partisan issue.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said whether she will support another extension is far from certain. She said it would depend on how it is structured and how it is paid for.
“I will have to look at the circumstances at the time,” she said, “and at how many people will be affected in Maine and nationwide and how it is paid for.”
Collins said that whether there is an extension also will depend on the mood of lawmakers in both parties and whether there is a willingness to cooperate.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has supported several extensions that have been opposed by other GOP lawmakers because she says that unemployment is a true safety net program that needs to continue to help those who have not been able to find a job.
“We ought to develop a consensus on how to extend these critical benefits in a fiscally responsible manner, as we attempted to do in July,” she said. “Americans struggling and facing, on average, the longest period between jobs — 32.1 weeks — since 1949 shouldn’t be held hostage by Congress’ inability to create certainty in the economy.”
Snowe said that to create certainty, Congress needs to set tax policy for the next several years so businesses have some stability as they plan to expand and add jobs.
The economic impact of extended unemployment benefits is substantial. Millions of dollars a week are paid out in benefits that are then immediately spent on such necessities as food and fuel, which helps keep small businesses operating.