U.S. Senator Bob Casey joined Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in calling for a one-year extension of a subsidized jobs program, highlighting a letter signed by 1,600 employers nationwide. The program, which has employed over 240,000 people in 37 states, will expire Sept. 30 unless Congress intervenes.
"One of the best things that the Recovery Act did was to put in place this program," said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) at a Capitol Hill press conference Wenesday. "The worst thing that we could do at a time when our economy is coming out of the ditch and we're able to start building and growing is to pull up the ladder and say we don't want to do this anymore, we're just going to move on to something else."
The Emergency Fund was created by the 2009 stimulus to assist states with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs. A House approved bill that would have reauthorized the funds was voted down in May with Senate Republicans citing deficit concerns; extending the program will cost Congress $2.5 billion.
"Normally you hear the phrase if it's not broken don't fix it. And in this particular case, if it's working don't end it. This is a program that works."
Nutter motioned to man in the audience wearing a T-shirt that read "I need a job."
"I hear that everyday..." Nutter said. "I can assure you that when I go back to Philly later on tonight, get off the train, get in the car and pull up on the sidewalk outside City Hall - the moment I get out of my car somebody's going to say: 'Mayor, I need job.'"
The Pennsylvania program has employed 12,800 adults to work at 4,200 businesses, according to John Dodds of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. In Rhode Island it has put 2,000 people to work. In Illinois more than 27,000 people are currently employed by the program.
Debra Chambers, a current employee of the Philadelphia Way to Work program and mother of three, said if the program ends, she doesn't know how she'll put food on the table.
"If the program ends for me in two weeks I really just don't know what I'm going to do," said Chambers, her voice breaking up. "It's the only thing that I have."
Chambers was unemployed for a year and a half before she was hired by the Philadelphia Way to Work program, she told the Huffington Post in an interview. She tried not to cry as she talked about the prospect of going back to the job boards. "I'm just trying to stay afloat," she said.
If the program is extended for a year, Chambers said it will give her the opportunity to be hired on permanently or develop a new set of skills. "It's a bridge from unemployment to employment," she told the Huffington Post. "That's what it is, a bridge to get me where I need to go."
Employers, for their part, say the federal funding has allowed them to keep hiring in tough times.
"We're not looking for a hand out we need a hand up," said Robert Miller, Director of Books for the Internet Archive in San Francisco, where 3,500 jobs are at stake. Miller, one of the 1,600 employers to sign the letter to Congress in support of extending the program, has hired 145 people with the help of the stimulus package. "We're faced with an extraordinary time right now and actually there's an easy solution - it's hiring people."
But moving things forward legislatively will not be so simple. Everything hangs on getting past the 60-vote hurdle in the Senate, and the prospects don't look good.
"We haven't had a lot of support from the other side of the aisle," said Casey. "I'm not real confident that they would support [the program] but we'll certainly try. I'm really holding back here because it's been frustrating. But there are other vehicles."
Working with Sen. John Kerry, Casey circulated a letter Thursday asking Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max to include a one-year extension of the program in any upcoming legislative packages.
There may be a way to fund the program through a "continuing resolution," which provides funding for existing federal programs at current or reduced levels. But Casey fears that given the climate of the Senate, funding may be slashed.
"It's not the best vehicle because our friends on the other side are going to be reluctant," said Casey. "I'll leave it at that."