WASHINGTON -- After several months of gradual decline, the number of Americans unemployed six months or longer surprisingly increased by 203,000 to 3.8 million in February, the U.S. Labor Department announced Friday in an otherwise positive jobs report.
Some of these are the 1.3 million people Congress left hanging back in December when it failed to renew federal long-term unemployment insurance.
Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal D.C. think tank, said that she would have expected the December lapse in benefits to lead to fewer people being counted as long-term unemployed, not more. Those receiving benefits were required to continue searching for work, but once the benefits lapsed, some of those people may have stopped looking. People who haven't sought work in the past four weeks don't count as unemployed.
Yet Shierholz said despite the February increase, the rate of long-term joblessness will probably continue its slow decline. There are nearly 1 million fewer long-term unemployed workers than this time last year.
"As the labor market recovery slogs along, I would expect it to continue trending generally down," Shierholz said.
For some of the people who lost their benefits in December, the search for work only became more frantic.
Bethany Workman, a single mom in East Syracuse, N.Y., was one of them. She and six other hygienists lost their jobs when their dental office closed down in March 2012. She received unemployment insurance but also took temporary jobs.
"I took any temp part time I could get," Workman, 44, said in an interview. "A lot of dentists don't want to hire a full-time hygienist. I could get a day here, a day there. By the time I would pay daycare I would end up with less than I had on unemployment. I waited tables."
When her benefits ended in December, debt started piling up.
"It was right after Christmas and I just wasn't aware that that was going to happen, so we just basically had nothing," she said. "What do you do when you have nothing?"
She applied for food stamps and temporary assistance to help with her rent. She received $580, for February but Workman said she still owes $870 for the past two months. She kept applying for jobs and finally got a callback two weeks ago, when a dentist urgently needed a hygienist because one had quit unexpectedly. Now she's hoping she'll be able to catch up.
"I'm way behind on all my bills," Workman said. "The landlord's being very, very gracious."
As for Congress, the jobs report is unlikely to change anyone's positions. Senate Democrats are pushing a bill that would reauthorize the benefits for six months; even if it passed, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives is unlikely to act. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has suggested job growth diminishes the need for more emergency benefits.
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) told HuffPost Thursday that House Democrats would keep bugging Boehner anyway. Kildee and 160 other Democrats sent the speaker a letter demanding a vote.
"Just because we're moving in the right direction, doesn't mean we're at the place where the extended unemployment benefits are not an essential lifeline," he said.