More than 13 million people could lose their unemployment benefits at the end of December

Paulina Bastidas-Yale, an unemployed downtown office cleaner, helps distribute food at the Our Savior Lutheran Church on Paris St. in East Boston on Sept. 22, 2020.
David L. Ryan | The Boston Globe | Getty Images

Aid to more than half of all Americans receiving jobless benefits is set to expire in less than two months, and the share is likely to grow as the year-end deadline approaches.

Roughly 3.6 million Americans have been out of work for more than 27 weeks, or six months, according to the October jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall, roughly 1 in 3 people currently out of work have been unemployed since the coronavirus pandemic upended the U.S. economy in the spring.

Meanwhile, though the U.S. economy added 638,000 jobs last month, numbers indicate recovery is slowing as the country heads into colder weather and spiking Covid-19 cases that could force more business shutdowns.

Traditionally, state-provided unemployment benefits generally supply 26 weeks of benefits to people who are unemployed or underemployed. Under the federal CARES Act passed in March, however, two programs extend the window to a total of 39 weeks through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) or Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC). As of the latest available data from October 17, roughly 13.3 million people were claiming extended jobless benefits under one of these two programs.

The number of workers claiming these federal benefits make up more than half of the total 21.5 million people receiving unemployment benefits as of October. However, these CARES Act programs expire at the end of December 2020.

The future of long-term unemployment benefits is uncertain

Members of Congress and the White House have been in bitter negotiation over another potential coronavirus stimulus package for months.

In May, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion proposal called the HEROES Act, which would extend federal jobless aid into 2021. The Republican-held Senate did not take up the bill and introduced its own HEALS Act in July with decreased jobless aid until the end of 2020.

In latest discussions, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is set on a $2.2 trillion relief deal, while Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has put forth a "skinny" bill worth an estimated $500 billion. The two chambers and the White House have been unable to reach a compromise, primarily disagreeing on aid for state and local governments, enhanced unemployment insurance and liability protections for businesses.

Unless Congress acts to pass a new bill, only workers receiving regular state aid will continue to receive benefits as of January 2021.

Workers who qualify for traditional unemployment insurance and have since moved into PUA or PEUC for additional weeks may be able to tap a new window of extended benefits offered by their state come January. Extended benefits range by state from six to 20 additional weeks and are currently in effect in 40 states plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

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