WASHINGTON -- After this week, workers laid off through no fault of their own will not be eligible for any of the generous extended unemployment benefits layoff victims have received from the federal government since 2008.
States typically provide the first 26 weeks of unemployment insurance and Congress has provided extensions during every recession since the 1950s. But the current extensions, which give the unemployed an unprecedented 73 additional weeks of aid in some states, are set to expire at the beginning of January.
"There's a real potential cliff coming for unemployed people," emailed Judy Conti, a lobbyist for the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group. "The federal unemployment programs all expire at the end of this year. This means that anyone who is laid off on July 1st or later, will ONLY receive state benefits unless Congress acts to keep these needed programs up and running."
It's not incredibly likely that Congress will be in the mood to keep these programs up and running. Even when Democrats controlled the House of Representatives last year, Republicans and conservative Democrats in the Senate caused delays every time the aid needed to be reauthorized. With Republicans in control of the House, additional federal spending to support the economy will be even less popular. (Earlier this year, the GOP pushed a bill that would allow states to redirect federal funds for jobless benefits.)
Spokesmen for Republican leaders in the House either did not comment or did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
In December, Democrats only managed to preserve the benefits through this year by attaching them to two years of continued tax cuts. Several Dems grumbled that the benefits would be in trouble come January 2012.
"The rich get everything they wanted," Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) told HuffPost in December. "They don't care about the other stuff because they know it will all go away. The unemployment benefits -- we're gonna be fighting that one this time next year, right in the middle of when [Republicans] are in control. What chance do we have then? Zero."
Nearly 4 million people are currently collecting benefits under the federal programs, according to the latest data from the Labor Department. As of May, 6.2 million people had been out of work for six months or longer. The average unemployed person had been out of work for 39.7 weeks.
Federal unemployment benefits have never been dropped with a national unemployment rate above 7.2 percent.
"Quite frankly, this will be nothing short of a disaster –- for those workers and their families, and for local economies across the country," Conti said. "It's not too early for Congress to hold good-faith and open-minded negotiations about how to keep these federal programs up and running until the economy recovers enough, and creates enough jobs, that the programs are no longer needed."