7,000 on unemployment at risk if Legislature fails to comply with change in federal law

Posted Feb. 13, 2011, at 2:12 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 15, 2011, at 3:10 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — More than 7,000 Mainers will lose their unemployment benefits next month if lawmakers do not approve a change in state law to comply with federal changes in the unemployment insurance law passed in December.

“If we do not comply with the federal language, we will lose coverage of more than 7,000 Mainers that really need this help,” said Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, co-chairman of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development committee. “I hope we move this through swiftly.”

He said the legislation had broad support in the committee, unanimous of those present, and he believes it will have the two-thirds vote of the House and Senate needed to take effect before the March 11 deadline.

“This has been an important program for us over the last couple of years,” said Laura Boyette, director of the Unemployment Bureau at the Department of Labor. “The Maine Legislature took action in the spring of 2009 to adopt a temporary trigger to make sure this program took effect in a time of high unemployment.”

She said the program is a lifeline for workers who have exhausted both their 26 weeks of state-funded regular benefits and federal emergency benefits. She characterized those qualifying for the program as “pretty desperate” and still looking for work with few jobs available.

“The federal government pays for this, for the most part,” Boyette said. She said a relatively small number of public sector employers, such as municipalities and school districts, that have laid off workers will have to pay for those benefits because federal law does not allow the program to pay benefits to government workers laid off.

“Knowing that the job climate is still not particularly robust here in Maine, there are people out there that are really looking for work and can’t find it,” Rector said.

The legislation drew broad support at the public hearing on the bill last week. Matt Schlobohm of the Maine AFL-CIO told lawmakers the recession is far from over for many Maine families even though unemployment rates are down.

“It will help thousands of workers in our state,” he said. “It will strengthen Maine’s economy, and it will keep bread and milk on people’s tables and a warm house to go home to.”

He said it also will help local and state welfare budgets by providing the money for the basics. He said that without the extended benefits there would be more people seeking help at all levels of government.

Boyette estimated the value of continuing the extended benefit program would be close to $20 million through the end of the year. She agreed all of the money goes directly into economic activity.

Laura Harper, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, said even though the state is starting to “turn the corner” out of the recession, many Mainers still are facing hard times with one or both wage earners out of work.

“This is very important to the economic security of many families in our state,” she said.

Chris Hastedt of Maine Equal Justice, an advocacy organization for low-income residents, said the federally funded program will save money for the state and local governments. She said it is one of the true safety net programs to help people who are out of work.

“These benefits will help sustain local businesses and help with the recovery,” she said.

Garrett Martin of the Maine Center for Economic Policy agreed and said the economic impact of unemployment benefits is very significant.

“We know this is a long-term recovery we are looking at,” he said. “We may have turned the corner, but we have a long way to go.”

The economic impact on the state is certainly significant. In 2010 the state benefits paid to workers was about $210 million. The federally funded emergency and extended programs are estimated to have provided an additional $213 million to the state’s economy.

The average benefit for the programs has been about $285.

The unemployment rate was 7.3 percent in December, down from 8.1 percent a year ago. The number of unemployed in the state totaled 51,200, down 5,800 from a year ago.

By comparison, the national unemployment rate was 9.4 percent, down from 9.9 percent a year ago.

rkers that have exhausted both their 26 weeks of state funded regular benefits and federal emergency benefits. She characterized those qualifying for the program as “pretty desperate” and still looking for work with few jobs available.

“The federal government pays for this, for the most part,” Boyette said. She said a relatively small number of public sector employers, like municipalities and school districts, that have laid-off workers will have to pay for those benefits because federal law does not allow the program to pay benefits to government workers laid off.

“Knowing that the job climate is still not particularly robust here in Maine, there are people out there that are really looking for work and can’t find it,” Rector said.

The legislation drew broad support at the public hearing on the bill last week. Matt Schlobohm of the Maine AFL-CIO told lawmakers the recession is far from over for many Maine families even though unemployment rates are down.

“It will help thousands of workers in our state,” he said, “it will strengthen Maine’s economy and it will keep bread and milk on people’s tables and a warm house to go home to.”

He said it also will help local and state welfare budgets by providing the money for the basics. He said that without the extended benefits there would be more people seeking help at all levels of government.

Boyette estimated the value of continuing the extended benefit program would be close to $20 million through the end of the year. She agreed all of the money goes directly into economic activity.

Laura Harper, executive director of the Maine Woman’s Lobby, said even though the state is starting to “turn the corner” out of the recession, many Mainers are still facing hard times with one or both wage earners out of work.

“This is very important to the economic security of many families in our state,” she said.

Chris Hastedt of Maine Equal Justice, a low income advocacy organization, said the federally funded program will save money for the state and local governments. She said it is one of the true safety net programs to help people who are out of work.

“These benefits will help sustain local businesses and help with the recovery,” she said.

Garrett Martin of the Maine Center for Economic Policy agreed and said the economic impact of unemployment benefits is very significant.

“We know this is a long term recovery we are looking at,” he said, “we may have turned the corner, but we have a long way to go.”

The economic impact on the state is certainly significant. In 2010 the state regular benefits paid to workers was about $210 million. The federally funded emergency and extended programs are estimated to have provided an additional $213 million to the state’s economy.

The average benefit for the programs has been about $285.

The unemployment rate was 7.3 percent in December, down from 8.1 percent a year ago. The number of unemployed in the state totaled 51,200, down 5,800 from a year ago.

By comparison, the national unemployment rate was 9.4 percent, down from 9.9 percent a year ago.

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