This winter, Katherine Hackett is wearing a hat and coat inside her house. To save on heating costs, she keeps her thermostat set at 58 degrees. After 17 years in the health-care industry, after raising two sons who are in the military, Ms. Hackett abruptly got a pink slip and has been unemployed for more than a year.
But Congress has shown little interest in throwing her a lifeline. By failing to extend the emergency unemployment compensation program, Congress has cut off the jobless benefits that help Ms. Hackett and millions like her keep the lights on and the rent or mortgage paid. In Ohio this year, 128,600 unemployed people will feel the impact of failure to extend this vital assistance.
Nearly 69 million Americans have gotten a hand up from extended unemployment benefits since 2008. Last year, the program lifted an estimated 2.5 million people out of poverty.
These benefits also act as a broader economic stimulus. They keep money in the pockets of working families — money that gets spent at local businesses, promoting growth and job creation. Failure to renew the program would mean an estimated 240,000 jobs lost — 6,535 of them in Ohio.
Toledo and the auto industry here are making a comeback, but we all know there are still far too many hard-working people in this area who are unemployed or underemployed. Lucas County’s unemployment rate is 8.1 percent. Many friends and neighbors still need help just to keep a roof over their heads while they continue to look for jobs.
Extended unemployment insurance during times of economic distress has been a common-sense, bipartisan tradition for decades. The current program was launched under President George W. Bush in 2008 — a time when the jobless rate and the average duration of unemployment were much lower than they are today.
Long-term unemployment remains unacceptably high, even as the overall economy has continued to recover. To pull the plug on extended benefits now would be historically unprecedented; we have never done so when long-term unemployment was even half as high as it is now.
The longer you’re out of a job, the harder it is to find one. As President Obama put it, there’s a terrible Catch-22: “Companies won’t give their resume an honest look because they’ve been laid off so long, but they’ve been laid off so long because companies won’t give their resume an honest look.”
The stories I hear in my visits with long-term unemployed workers are heartbreaking. Staring at possible home foreclosure and the depletion of their 401(k) plans, they see the American dream slipping away. One man told me that he had cancer seven years ago — and that this unemployment struggle is worse.
Some have suggested that the unemployed are lazy, and that these benefits make them more so. This is as offensive as it is wrong: An aggressive job search is a precondition for receiving unemployment benefits.
It defies common sense to think that anyone is living the good life on unemployment insurance. On average, it replaces only about half of a worker’s earnings. Who’s going to be satisfied with a 50 percent pay cut?
Why would Katherine Hackett rather wear a coat in the house than enjoy the dignity of work? She and the other workers I’ve met are diligently applying for every position for which they might be qualified.
Emergency unemployment benefits are a stopgap. As the President recently explained, they are not “hammocks for people to just lie back and relax.” Rather, they are a springboard back to gainful employment and economic security. They are a lifesaver, not a lifestyle.
Benefits expired for 1.3 million Americans late last month. But unconscionably and irresponsibly, lawmakers sat on their hands, adjourning for recess without leading on this issue.
A minority of U.S. senators continues to block any extension. The majority leadership of the House of Representatives won’t even bring it up for a vote.
The President has said that extending emergency unemployment compensation should be the nation’s first order of business this year.
To ease hardship, and to provide relief in Ohio and nationwide, Congress must act immediately.
Thomas E. Perez is U.S. Secretary of Labor.
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