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Congress extends jobless benefits

| Thursday, July 22, 2010

The name Americans used to give to unemployment benefits -- "relief" -- is what thousands are expressing,

So said people such as Cynthia Sweeney of Wilkinsburg who has been unemployed since she lost her client representative job at the Better Business Bureau in late 2008.

"I'm certainly happy they passed this because so many people need some kind of money coming into their household," she said. "People can't pay their mortgage or car or phone or other bills."

About 240,000 of Pennsylvania's jobless residents were going to lose their federal unemployment benefits by the end of July, according to estimates by the state Department of Labor and Industry. The agency could not say how many in this region were at risk.

"People call in here every day with their unemployment situations," said Kaitlin Bowdler, outreach coordinator for the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, Homestead. "I can't believe it took this long for the Senate to get 60 votes."

The 60th vote, ending debate and clearing the bill's passage, came Tuesday from newly appointed Sen. Carte Goodwin of West Virginia, who replaced the late Robert Byrd. Final Senate and House votes are expected to place the bill on President Obama's desk for his signature as early as today.

The current funding will provide federal unemployment benefits, which average $309 per week, through Nov. 27

Unemployed people in Pennsylvania receive benefits for as long as 26 weeks from the state, followed by as long as 53 weeks of emergency relief from the federal government, followed by as many as 20 weeks of extended benefits paid by the state but funded by the federal government. The latter -- 73 weeks worth of funding -- is what is before Congress.

Nationwide, as many as 3 million unemployed people would lose benefits later this month if Congress did not extend funding, according to to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Experts argue that unemployment payments go back into the economy, but Department of Labor studies show that knocking people off the unemployment roles could save the government more than $35 billion this year.

"From an economist's point of view, you can't make a strong argument the extension of unemployment benefits is good for the overall economy because it increases already stretched federal finances," said Craig Thomas, senior economist at PNC Financial Services Group.

"It's kind to those who we know are out there struggling and is helpful to those people," he said. "But it will do nothing to mend the economy."

Federal Reserve data show almost half the 15 million unemployed nationwide as of the end of June have been without a job for 27 weeks or longer.

"When there's just one job out there for every five people without one, that's not enough," said Sweeney, who is growing frustrated in her fruitless job search.

Pennsylvania's June unemployment rate held steady at 9.2 percent and remains below the national rate. It marked the 87th month of the past 90 that the state jobless rate has been at or below the national level.

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