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Unemployment Benefits: More States Eye Cuts

Sadness

First Posted: 05/19/11 05:10 PM ET Updated: 07/19/11 06:12 AM ET

Add Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to the list of states considering cuts to unemployment insurance.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly needs to pass a law in order for the state to remain eligible for the federal Extended Benefits program for the rest of the year, which provides the final 20 weeks of checks in Pennsylvania for people who use up 73 weeks of combined state and federal aid. Within the past two months, lawmakers in Michigan, Missouri and Florida permanently slashed state unemployment aid in bills that preserve temporary federal aid.

Two Republican-sponsored measures moving through the GOP-controlled Pennsylvania statehouse would achieve similar results. And in Wisconsin, a proposal by Republican Gov. Scott Walker would restore the Extended Benefits program after local lawmakers let it lapse with virtually no public debate last month. But Walker's bill would also permanently install a one-week waiting period for new claimants before any jobless claims are paid, relieving Wisconsin businesses of a $45.2 million tax burden. (Wisconsin is one of 13 states that had no waiting week in 2010.)

"Without knowing exactly how the state arrived at the $45.2 million figure, it is safe to say that a roughly equivalent amount will come out of workers' pockets," said Mike Evangelist of the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group.

States pay for the first 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, and during recessions the federal government pays for extra weeks. While current federal unemployment benefits will only be around until January barring an unlikely congressional reauthorization, changes to state law will be permanent.

The bill in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives would save the state $632 million chiefly by cutting the average weekly payment from $324 to $277, according to Sharon Dietrich, an attorney with Community Legal Services, a nonprofit group that advocates for poor people in Pennsylvania. The bill in the Pennsylvania Senate -- which Dietrich said she considers "way more innocuous" -- would, like its counterpart in the House, tighten work-search requirements, but would only result in a net spending decrease of $50 million, Dietrich said. Each bill will reach the floor of its respective chamber early next week.

"On June 11, approximately 45,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians who currently qualify for federal extended benefits will be dropped from the unemployment rolls unless we slightly modify the state law," State Sen. John Gordner (R) said in a statement. "It costs the state no money to qualify for these fully funded federal benefits through the end of the year, and results in an estimated $150 million in economic benefits."

South Carolina is also considering cutting state aid, and lawmakers in North Carolina and Tennessee are still debating measures to revive the EB program after they let it die last month.

And in the U.S. Congress, Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill that would give states leeway to trim federal aid to the unemployed to use the money instead to repay federal unemployment government loans.

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