More than 200,000 laid-off workers will prematurely lose their unemployment benefits this week thanks to Kentucky Republican Sen. Jim Bunning's surly refusal to let the Senate extend provisions of last year's stimulus bill, according to an analysis by the National Employment Law Project.
"This week, tens of thousands of jobless workers will receive the jarring news that they no longer have unemployment benefits, because Congress neglected to meet a basic benchmark for extending them," said NELP director Christine Owens in a statement. "As a result, workers, families and their communities will be cut off from a crucial lifeline and face even more confusion and uncertainty about when and how their benefits will continue. Congress must extend benefits immediately -- and for the full year."
Bunning has obstructed a bipartisan effort to move legislation that would provide a 30-day stopgap extension of enhanced unemployment benefits and subsidized COBRA benefits for laid-off workers, provisions of last year's stimulus bill that expired on Feb. 28. The 30-day extension, which also includes funding for highway projects, improved Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors, and other provisions, has been single-handedly blocked by Bunning. For the past four days, Bunning has objected to motions for "unanimous consent" -- requests for a quick vote on the bill -- because it would add $10 billion to the deficit. He blames the Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for scrapping two weeks ago a bipartisan jobs bill that included unemployment insurance and COBRA benefits, among other things.
Sue Mason, a 57-year-old mechanical engineering designer in Pennsville, N.J., who's been unemployed since January 2009, said she will exhaust the third tier of federally-funded unemployment benefits this week. That means she will be ineligible for the fourth tier, which provides six weeks of benefits.
Mason said she's been unable to reach the state's Department of Labor and Workforce Development: "If you call there, they're so swamped. I've called and called and called." As far as she can tell from the message on the department's website, she will miss a check and might not be able to make her house payment this month.
Mason is appalled that the Senate hasn't extended eligibility for the extra tiers of benefits. In New Jersey, NELP estimates that 867 people will lose their benefits during every week of March. Across the country, 1.2 million people will lose their benefits over the course of the month.
"I just think it's unconscionable," Mason said. "I just think they're not listening to people."
Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, took the floor on Tuesday to try move the bill forward "on my own behalf and on behalf of numerous members of the Republican caucus who have expressed concerns to me."
Reid thanked Collins for trying after Bunning objected for the 12th time. "I appreciate the efforts of my friend, the senator from Maine, and I would hope that my friend, the senator from Kentucky, would reconsider," he said. "His point has been made. It's been adequately made. And I would hope that he would let us proceed on this because it's more than meets the eye. We have people lined up all over the country at unemployment lines that wouldn't be there but for this."
While Bunning maintains his stand on deficit reduction and prevents an expedited vote, Reid has introduced a bill that will extend unemployment and COBRA provisions of the stimulus bill through the end of the year. The bill will go through an open-amendment process that Bunning can't obstruct, but could take until the end of the week, meaning the measure could finally pass as late as the beginning of next week, according to a Democratic aide.
The bill, which has broad bipartisan support, will retroactively pay benefits to anyone who misses a check. How long unemployment benefits recipients will have to wait before getting paid is an open question.
"It will depend on how quickly Congress moves and how quickly the states can move and there are really big variables on both ends," said Judy Conti, a lobbyist for NELP. "It's disruptive and who knows how long that's going to take."