Deborah Barrett, a 57-year-old accounting manager in Newport, R.I., is one of an estimated 1.3 million unemployed workers who will lose their unemployment benefits on December 28 because Congress failed to extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.

A degreed accounting professional with 25 years of experience in the private and public sectors, and expertise in financial software management, Barrett was laid off from her job in February.

“For the very first time in my life, I applied for and began receiving unemployment insurance after being laid off from my accounting manager position in February of this year,” Barrett said during a conference call Thursday with reporters, members of Congress and an employment law advocacy group highlighting the importance of extending the program. “I am an independent, self-supporting woman who is quite young for my 57 years, and a homeowner who has also been caring for my 86-year-old mother in our home, while I search for work on a full-time basis. Let me be clear. My job search is my full-time job. I am sick and tired of people insinuating that folks in my position are not really trying to find jobs and are content to remain on unemployment. Such willful ignorance is deplorable. I never thought I would be out of work for this long. The number of people in my shoes is heartbreaking.”

Barrett has needed to contend with not only high levels of long-term unemployment across the U.S., but other factors that have kept her from finding work.

“It seems like I am up against a triple whammy: being a job seeker in her fifties in a state with high unemployment and out of work for six months or more,” she said. “Just last week, I received the last week of EUC Tier One benefits, and this week claimed the first week of EUC Tier Two. These modest benefits, which provide about one-third of my prior earnings, are my sole source of income while I look for work. And now these benefits will stop, due to the refusal of some lawmakers to grasp the horrific damage that will ensue. Without the continuation of federal unemployment insurance, I don’t know how I’ll be able to stay in our home—or how we will get by until I land my next job. This is such a terrible situation for so many people. Unfortunately, I don’t believe my story is unique.”

Legislation Planned in Congress
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said on the conference call that he plans to introduce bipartisan legislation with Sen. Dean Heller, R, Nev., early next month when Congress returns from recess to extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program for another three months, with retroactive benefits going to workers who will lose their benefits after the program expires. In addition to the 1.3 million long-term unemployed who will lose their benefits on December 28, another 1.9 million are estimated to lose their benefits by the middle of next year unless the program is extended.

“People are desperately looking for work and not finding success because in some markets there are three and four people competing for one job,” said Reed. He pointed out that the current unemployment benefits are very modest, an average of about $350 a week.

[IMGCAP(1)]“This is just barely enough to keep people going, in some cases barely enough to keep people going, paying the rent, paying for fuel, going to the dollar store and not to the upscale shops,” said Reed. “Cutting 1.3 million Americans off this lifeline, and there will be more in the succeeding months, doesn’t make any sense, and it is not something we should be doing. Moreover, there is a strong economic case that this program helps our economy and helps small businesses across the country, particularly in the retail trade. It’s been estimated by CBO [the Congressional Budget Office] that we’ll lose 200,000 jobs next year if we don’t renew these benefits, and about 2 percent growth will be shaved off.”

He and Heller plan to introduce a bill in early January to provide a three-month extension.

“Dean is working very hard, as I am, to talk to our colleagues, to get us what we need,” said Reed. “We anticipate we’ll have a procedural vote on January 6. I certainly hope that all of my colleagues will respond to these two basic facts: one, this is the fair and right thing to do for our constituents who have worked hard and just want a chance to work again, and two, it’s the right thing to do for our economy. I hope we can be successful. We’re going to try when we get back, and we’re going to keep trying until we get this thing done.”

Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, also plans to push for an extension.

[IMGCAP(2)]“It’s never been that we’ve eliminated this program when long-term unemployment has been this high, never,” said Levin. “Thirty-seven percent of the unemployed have been out of work for six weeks. The public understands that UI has been a lifeline. Last year 2 and a half million people, as a result of UI, were lifted out of poverty, and since the program began, under a Republican president, 3.4 million people have been lifted out of poverty. I think there’s a sense that this is indeed a lifeline. Since 2008, 59 million Americans have received this program.”

The prospects for passage of an extension remain uncertain, however. Many Republican lawmakers have demanded that the cost of the extension be offset with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget, while Democrats have insisted it should be counted as emergency spending and not be offset, as has traditionally been the case (see House Democratic Women Lawmakers Push for Unemployment Insurance Extension). The cost of extending the benefits for three months is estimated to be $6.5 billion, and for a full year roughly $25 billion.

Reed and Levin favor a three-month extension, followed by discussion of possible offsets, such as the closing of tax loopholes for major corporations, including tax breaks that encourage companies to move jobs offshore, along with reforms in the unemployment insurance program, to pay for a longer-term extension. Reed pointed out that Levin’s brother, Senator Carl Levin, D-Mich., has proposed many reforms over the years aimed at closing offshore tax loopholes.

“I think it’s essential we have this three-month extension without offsets because we’ve got to get it done quickly and then in the intervening months we can look at a whole range of issues,” said Reed in response to a question from Accounting Today. “Once you start looking at the tax system, it does take time to come up with appropriate offsets. You could get a laundry list of possibilities, but ultimately it’s about very careful analysis by the [House] Ways and Means Committee and the [Senate] Finance Committee. I just think we should keep our eyes focused on getting this extension done and then looking in a very careful way at provisions. But typically we don’t offset these because it’s emergency spending due to the economy and due to people out of work.”

Levin added that some major reforms have already been carried out in the unemployment program and he disputed claims by Senator Rand Paul, R-Ken., that people were still collecting benefits for 99 weeks. “That doesn’t exist anymore,” said Levin. “The average number of weeks is now 54, including in most states the state benefit of 26. Also, there are some additional reforms: that states now have expanded ability to get people to come in, attain job training and verify they are looking for jobs. The system is built so that as unemployment rates go down in particular states, the maximum number of weeks goes down. So there has been considerable reform already placed into this structure, reducing the overall number of weeks available. We just have to face up to this emergency. For 1.3 million families, this is an emergency.”

In addition, Levin noted that the job search is particularly difficult for older job seekers who often omit any hint of their age in their CVs.

Barrett was asked by Accounting Today whether she feels she has faced age discrimination in her search for an accounting job in Rhode Island. “In my experience, I can’t say for a fact that it’s age discrimination, but I’m sure there are places that would rather have someone younger,” she replied. “But there are studies out there saying that is an issue. I have sent out hundreds of resumes. I’ve had probably about 10 interviews. Some people get back to me and say why. A lot of times, it’s that other people out there have more experience than I do. But there are just so many people looking for the same jobs, it’s very difficult. Just getting an interview is so exciting sometimes and for a little while you feel better. But it just goes back to pumping the resumes out there, doing cover letters. It’s constant. I have never relaxed.”

“At a time when many of us are celebrating a sacred holiday marked by giving to others, it’s painful that so many Americans have been left behind in the economic recovery—and deeply distressing that Congress has turned its back on them by cutting off federal jobless aid,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, which hosted the conference call Thursday. “Failing to renew emergency unemployment insurance will devastate millions of families and do real harm to the national economy. As long as millions of long-term unemployed workers cannot find jobs, our economic recovery will fall short. Congress needs to pass legislation that invests in creating jobs, and in the meantime, we need to ensure that the millions of people out of work through no fault of their own continue to have access to this critical aid.”

Poll Shows Voters Favor Unemployment Extension
Lawmakers may find themselves coming under increasing pressure during the congressional recess from constituents back home worried about the expiration of long-term unemployment benefits. A new poll by Hart Research Associates of more than 800 voters across the country found strong support for renewing emergency unemployment insurance. 

According to the poll results, only one-third of voters believe Congress should allow federal jobless aid to end this week. By a strong 21-point margin, 55 percent of the voters surveyed said Congress should act to maintain the benefits, as opposed to 34 percent who said Congress should cut off the benefits. There is also more intensity of feeling on the side favoring an extension. More than twice as many voters strongly favor maintaining benefits (43 percent) compared to those who strongly feel benefits should end (21 percent).

Voters also reject the claim that unemployed workers are not trying to find work. Just 33 percent of voters agree that most of those receiving jobless aid “are not trying to find a job, and prefer to collect benefits without working.” Instead, 57 percent said that the unemployed “would rather work, but cannot find a job in today’s economy.”

“The poll results reflect an electorate that is still feeling the effects of a weak economy,” said Guy Molyneux, a pollster with Hart Research. “The reality is that the unemployment crisis doesn’t care whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican—it’s affecting everybody. So when members of Congress say that cutting off jobless aid is in the best interest of the unemployed, they sound callous and out of touch.”

The poll also found that some pivotal groups who helped bring the Republican majority into power in 2010 were among those who favored an extension.

“This is, I think, a politically very powerful issue potentially next year,” Molyneux said. “Seniors, for example, over 65 and older favor an extension by a very large margin of 61 to 31 percent right now. White non-college educated voters who have been voting more conservative in recent elections support extending benefits by a 15-point margin, 52 percent to 37 percent. We also see a big gender gap here with women very strongly favoring an extension, among white women a 20-point margin in favor of continuing benefits. While I think that extending benefits is something that Congress should do because it’s the right thing to do, any member of Congress also has a pretty clear interest politically in voting to do that as well.”

A member of Congress who opposes federal jobless aid faces an 18-point net loss of support from voters. Only 21 percent said that this position makes them more likely to vote for a member of Congress, while 39 percent are less likely to support the member’s re-election (and 35 percent said it would not affect their vote).

“Here again the views of women are very strong,” Molyneux pointed out. “Among women there’s a 27-point deficit for a candidate who wants to end the federal unemployment benefits, and among seniors a 26-point deficit. Members of Congress who take this position are really asking for a potential and pretty strong backlash among voters in their district, particularly from women and seniors who really stand out as having a very strong view on this.”