The Fate of Federal Unemployment Benefits in 2014

Richard Mattos, 59, looks for jobs at a state-run employment center in Salem, Ore., on Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. Mattos is one of more than 1 million Americans who will lose federal unemployment benefits at year's end. Photo: Jonathan J. Cooper, AP

Richard Mattos, 59, looks for jobs at a state-run employment center in Salem, Ore., on Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013. Mattos is one of more than 1 million Americans who will lose federal unemployment benefits at year’s end. Photo: Jonathan J. Cooper, AP

The impending expiration of federal unemployment benefits has many accusing Democratic legislators of bungling the debate. Although Congress retains the option to act retroactively, Democrats had hoped to extend the benefits before Dec. 28, when they were set to expire. The White House and its allies in Congress attempted to attach a provision to the budget deal several weeks ago; yet once the fight got underway, surprisingly few Democrats seemed invested, while Republicans were content to simply run down the clock.

With Congress now in recess, the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers estimates that long-term unemployment insurance will be terminated for 1.3 million Americans, and could potentially cost another 240,000 jobs. And of course being unemployed in the first place, these American families are already economically vulnerable; some have also reported that denied L&I claims and uncollected workers compensation benefits from the months before their termination have compounded financial difficulties.

Was this outcome inevitable? Or did Democratic lawmakers drop the ball?

Public attention was first brought to the issue in mid-November, when top White House economic adviser Gene Sperling discussed this in an interview at The Atlantic’s Washington Ideas Forum. As he explained, “With an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent, we need to raise the emergency unemployment insurance and push for extensions to 2014.”

Yet even then, most lawmakers still assumed that the problem would work itself out as it had the last two times an extension was needed, when opponents were essentially shamed into supporting it. As one Democratic congressional aide explained, “Last year, there was no real debate over this. And the year before, Republicans got so hammered on it, they essentially had to do this by unanimous consent with their tail between their legs.”  This time around, he says that we should cut Democrats some slack since they automatically assumed “this was something that Republicans would not put up a fight over, because it’s a losing issue for them.”

For example, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) caused a stir after stating that benefits turned job-seekers into “welfare dependents.” And Representative Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, was perhaps the only high-ranking Republican to seriously propose that benefits be dropped altogether. During an interview with the Detroit Free Press, he cited the situation in North Carolina where a Republican-controlled state legislature made the state ineligible for federal unemployment aid. “There, the program ended in July and the state has seen rapid job creation,” Camp claimed.

However, Camp’s argument about North Carolina was debunked by liberal and conservative think tanks alike, who showed that the state unemployment rate had dropped off since July primarily due to benefit cuts pushing people out of the workforce.

Publicly, the debate over renewing benefit heated up as the deadline approached. President Obama discussed it in a widely-praised speech on the crisis of economic mobility in America. Next, he made it the centerpiece of his weekly White House radio address, while the Council of Economic Advisers issued a state-by-state report on the effects such a lapse would have on American families. When the budget deal finally appeared without unemployment insurance, the White House called for it to be considered separate from that package.

Local political pressure may now be the only hope left for extending the benefits. Democrats suspect that over the holiday break, a critical mass of Republican Representatives will hear from angry constituents, and pressure Speaker of the House John Boehner to settle on a piece of legislation he can support. At this point it seems like a long-shot strategy, but Congressional aides say they remain hopeful in the wake of expanded press coverage the issue has received outside the national capital.

If your unemployment is the result of wrongful termination or other illegal workplace practices, a Seattle Employment attorney can help.  The team at Emery Reddy also assists workers managing the complexity of the Department of Labor and Industries. If you need help recovering your workers compensation benefits, contact an L&I Lawyer today.


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