AUGUSTA, Maine — This week’s holiday cheer will be cut short Saturday for thousands of Mainers who will lose jobless benefits as the federal Extended Unemployment Compensation expires.
Roughly 3,500 long-term unemployed residents no longer will be eligible for unemployment checks on Saturday, said Maine Department of Labor spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz on Friday. Each recipient’s average weekly benefit is $287.
The federally funded program began under President George W. Bush in 2008, during the early throes of the recession. It provided extended unemployment benefits for up to 99 weeks, instead of the usual 26-week limit.
More recently, as the economy improved and after the U.S. government instituted across-the-board spending cuts through sequestration, the limit in Maine was reduced to 43 weeks total.
The program has been extended by Congress 11 times, but was left out of the recent budget compromise hammered out by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. That budget was approved in the House and Senate and signed into law by President Barack Obama on Thursday.
More than 75,000 Mainers have used at least one week of the compensation since 2008, Rabinowitz said, and the Maine Department of Labor has been preparing recipients for the impending cut-off date for weeks. Those warnings have included written notices on benefit deposit slips and posted on the department’s website.
But regardless of how prepared individual recipients may be, Rabinowitz said the timing is bad for Maine, where job opportunities dwindle in the winter compared with the busier summer tourist season.
“We have such severe seasonal swings in unemployment that this is the hardest time of the year to find a job,” she said. “It’s winter. There’s heating issues and expenses, and holiday expenses.”
Studies have shown that the longer someone is unemployed, the less likely they are to get a job. Work experience becomes increasingly irrelevant and professional connections deteriorate with each passing day.
While finding work is never a cakewalk, job postings nationally are more numerous than they’ve been for years. Posts on the state-run Maine Job Bank are double what they were at this time last year, Rabinowitz said.
Plus, jobless Mainers who have been receiving extended unemployment benefits were required to participate in an intensive workshop geared toward teaching skills specific to job searching. So they may be better suited than some others in the job search.
“Whatever they’d been doing is not being effective in getting them a job,” Rabinowitz said. “So do they know how to apply online? Do they know how to access job-search tools? Do they have an email address, and check it regularly?” These are all skills that were taught in the course, which includes one-on-one support and individual skills assessment.
That workshop, and others, are provided at the state’s career centers. Ed Upham runs the career center in Bangor, which serves Penobscot, Piscataquis and Hancock counties. Upham said that many unemployed people are holding out for a job that might not exist, seeking the same sort of work, pay, hours and benefits they had before they were laid off.
But with Extended Unemployment Compensation ending, job seekers may need to accept what Upham calls “survival jobs” — work that may not be ideal but that serves as a re-entry point into the workforce, something that can be built upon.
“The choices are hard. There’s just not good way to put it,” he said. “The survival job is what they need to look at now. The other choice is to keep holding out for a job, but then they might have to look into welfare to pull them through. But that doesn’t put them back into the workstream, and that’s what they really need.”
Though Congress did not include extended unemployment in its budget deal, signals from the Beltway show the issue is likely to be on the table again when lawmakers head back to D.C. in January, with Democrats in the Senate positioning to make extension a top priority.
In the House, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, may be one of the loudest supporters. She was one of just 32 Democrats in the House to oppose the latest budget bill, which she said in a release was because of the failure to extend such benefits.
“I’m glad there is an agreement that will avoid another shutdown and allows us to move forward,” Pingree said the day she voted against the bill. “But working families have already made more than their fair share of sacrifice and this budget deal asks them to give even more and I just couldn’t support it.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, also a Democrat, voted for the budget deal, but has signaled his support for renewing extended unemployment benefits for a 12th time. Independent Sen. Angus King, who caucuses with Democrats, also said he would have liked to see the extension in the budget and likely will support a separate bill.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins has noted her previous support of extended benefits and said she’d carefully consider any proposal to extend the program when it comes before the Senate, but that a renewed emphasis should be placed on retraining for new jobs that are being created.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.