Just like it did in December, Congress must once again scramble to prevent hundreds of thousands of people from exhausting their unemployment benefits in the next month.
The National Employment Law Project is sounding the alarm: Unless the Congress extends provisions of the stimulus bill by the end of February, 1.2 million laid off workers will become ineligible for extended benefits in March.
"Congress must swiftly act to maintain the lifeline for millions of jobless Americans caught in the undertow of record long-term unemployment in this ongoing downturn," said NELP director Christine Owens in a statement.
The stimulus bill added up to 53 weeks of federally-funded unemployment benefits to the 26 weeks provided by states -- and then up to an additional 20 weeks of extended benefits. Without another extension, a person receiving unemployment benefits will not be able to advance to the next tier of federal benefits after February (nobody would lose benefits mid-tier).
The stimulus bill also provided a $25 weekly boost to benefit checks and a 65 percent subsidy of COBRA health insurance.
The provisions would have expired at the end of December, but Congress kicked the problem down the road for another few months with a stopgap extension. Now, the Senate will probably include another stopgap extension in a jobs bill that could see a preliminary vote on Monday and pass by the end of the week. But with the Democrats' new 59-41 majority, a delay is possible. And the House may take issue with the Senate's jobs bill.
"Given the uncertainty, I don't think its far-fetched to envision this issue gets down to the last week of the month before it's completely resolved," said a House Democratic staffer. "It's obviously a big problem coming our way if we don't get this done."
The timing is important because while the provisions for extended benefits expire at the end of the month, state labor commissioners can't wait until the last second to notify check recipients that they may not be eligible for their next tier of benefits. Depending on the timing, some labor commissioners may have to disrupt their processes, and some people could miss a week or two of benefits. NELP wants Congress to extend benefits before the end of next week to prevent that from happening.
NELP has been lobbying the Hill frantically and is frustrated that Congress is continuing with its piecemeal approach to extending benefits for a few months instead of simply reauthorizing another full year. NELP deputy director Andrew Stettner told HuffPost he sees this coming down to the wire again in June and then again October.
"It's disappointing that they didn't do a full-year extension," he said. "They're going to keep setting this up for more debate, and then it's going to be near an election, and people are going to grandstand about the deficit."