It's the most wonderful time of the year, but for 1.3 million jobless Americans, it could be a bleak holiday season if Congress fails to extend federal unemployment benefits.
A program known as Emergency Unemployment Compensation provides federal checks to long-term unemployed when their state benefits run out. It expires at the end of the year, and Congress is engaged in political gamesmanship about whether to renew the program or make cuts. Uncertainty about its future has left those receiving the federal checks anxious and in belt-tightening mode ahead of the holiday season.
"As far as I'm concerned this year, there are no holidays," said Andrea Hinninge, of Syracuse, N.Y., who was laid off in March from a job at a physical therapist's office. She's hardly in a position to think about shopping for gifts or a special holiday meal, she said, fearing that her federal benefits might not be there after Dec. 31.
Since 2008, Congress has debated or amended the federal program multiple times, including four year-end cliffhanger debates. This year is shaping up as round five. The program has become another bargaining chip in the ongoing budget battle—this time against the bitter backdrop of the recent government shutdown and the shaky framework for a major budget overhaul.
The federal government spent $26 billion on the program in fiscal 2013.
"The last few years it has been as much about Congress striking a large enough deal to carry this along with it," said Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project, which is lobbying to renew the program. "So we have to wait and see what Congress about to at the end of this year or the beginning of next."
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The program was created to help jobless workers sidelined by the wave of layoffs in the depths of the Great Recession. Federal benefits kick in when the 26 weeks of state-run unemployment benefits have been exhausted. Originally extending the total to 99 weeks, the program was tied in part to the jobless rate in each state. As the rate has fallen, so has the number of weeks of coverage.
Postings are sparse
With the unemployment rate well below its Great Recession peak of 10 percent and millions of once-jobless Americans back to work, Congress is weighing whether the program is still necessary.
Lawmakers may start by talking to C.J. Mitchell, 27, of Tri-Cities, Wash., who has been looking for work as a chemical engineer since May, when she lost her job with a government contractor.
"I wasn't one of those 'selfish millennials' who coasted," she said. "I chose a very difficult major with lucrative rewards."
Though she extended her job search to seven Western states, "the postings are sparse," Mitchell said. The two companies she has interviewed with were looking for more senior engineers to replace people now retiring.
In the last month she began applying for seasonal retail jobs locally, she said, but her engineering degree is an obstacle.
"I guess retailers don't want smarty-pants help demanding $15 an hour minimum wages," Mitchell said.