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Unemployment Extension Uncertainty 'A Truly Scary Situation'

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UNEMPLOYMENT EXTENSION
Vincent Brandon speaking at the Capitol Visitors Center on Wednesday, Nov. 30. | Arthur Delaney

WASHINGTON -- Vincent Brandon of Pittsburgh had been driving a bus for two years when the Port Authority of Allegheny County laid him off along with nearly 200 other employees as part of a 15 percent transit service reduction.

Brandon has had no luck finding work since then, but he said he's been paying his rent, keeping the lights on and buying food thanks to $400 a week in unemployment insurance. On Wednesday, he came to Washington, D.C. along with hundreds of other union workers to ask Congress not to kill the benefits at the end of the month.

"If that happens, I don't know what I could do," Brandon, an Army vet, said during a rally with congressional Democrats in the Capitol Hill Visitors Center. "I would have to give up my apartment and would no longer be able to keep up with the bills or even food. This is truly a scary situation. It would be harmful and cruel for Congress to just walk away and turn its back on millions of hardworking unemployed Americans like me."

Unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless is among a raft of programs set to expire in January without congressional reauthorization. While Democrats have been making the most noise about renewing the benefits, Republicans have been quietly supportive. An extension seems likely, even though in 2010 partisan squabbling repeatedly delayed checks to millions.

HuffPost readers: Worried your benefits will stop because of Congress? Tell us about it -- email arthur@huffingtonpost.com. Please include your phone number if you're willing to do an interview.

In October, as Brandon's jobless spell entered its seventh month, his state benefits expired and he moved to the first tier of federal benefits, which lasts 20 weeks. As of November, 3.4 million people out of work six months or longer were relying on federal jobless benefits, down from 4.6 million at this time last year.

For the past three years, the full regimen of federal benefits has provided assistance up to 73 weeks, but if Brandon is still jobless he won't be able to advance past the first federal tier -- if Congress fails to act. Without a reauthorization, some 1.8 million people would see their benefits peter out in January. (Congress is not seriously considering any additional benefits for the 2 million who've been out of work longer than 99 weeks and are thus beyond the reach of unemployment insurance.)

After speaking to a room packed with other union members, reporters and Democratic members of Congress, Brandon told HuffPost he's taking web-design classes in hopes of landing a job with a youth advocacy nonprofit. He said he's considered returning to truck driving, which he did before becoming a bus operator, but the work would pay less than what he receives in benefits. Also, he said, "It would disconnect me from my family."

Of course, Brandon said he would rather have a job than an unemployment check.

"And as a matter of fact, I need to get back to work, not just for myself but also for my five-year-old daughter who relies on me for care and support, not to mention my son, who's currently in college," he said, "and for my fiance who is patiently waiting for a ring."

Arthur Delaney is the author of "A People's History of the Great Recession," HuffPost's first e-book.

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