Extend Federal Unemployment Lifeline

by Claudia Finkel, Chief Operating Officer, JVS Los Angeles, www.jvsla.org

A bipartisan deal to extend emergency federal unemployment insurance recently died in the Senate, a victim once again, of partisan politics. President Obama has called unemployment benefits a "lifeline," and he's right. The term is fitting.

Many of the thousands of clients served each year at the JVS WorkSource Centers in Pacoima, Marina del Rey, West Hollywood and Lancaster rely on unemployment insurance benefits to keep their lights on, keep food on the table, and keep a roof over their heads. These are not "welfare queens" or freeloaders at the government's expense. These are people like Danielle who took time off to care for a sick relative and returned to a job market that had no place for her. Unemployment sustained her until she maxed out her benefits and faced eviction.

"I had problems getting jobs as a temp," recalled Danielle who was out of work for two years. "Zero to negative balance in every account. Transportation was limited, not having gas in my car. I ate when I could find food."

Or take the case of Larry, a camera operator who is now considered overqualified for the few available jobs because he has a college degree. Unemployment enabled him to pay his rent until the computer glitch that delayed the sending of his checks had him on the brink of eviction. "Everybody wants to pay their rent on time. Nobody chooses not to pay their landlord," Larry said a few days before he was scheduled to lose his unemployment benefits. "Every day, I just keep looking, keep fighting."

Situations like Danielle's and Larry's are anything but rare. Following the Great Recession, the percentage of unemployed workers who were long-term unemployed, having been out of work and still looking for a job for over six months, rose to a peak of 45%. Today that percentage has dropped but still remains at historic levels. For perspective, the percentage of unemployed workers who were out of work for six months of more peaked at 26% following the severe recession of the early 1980s. In December of 2013, that percentage was 37.7%, 4.5 years after the end of the Great Recession.

It is already extremely difficult for the long-term unemployed to find work. With loss of income often comes loss of health insurance. People can no longer afford to make car payments or repairs. If, on top of this, they lose their unemployment benefits and are forced to seek public assistance - welfare and food stamps - the social and psychological effects can be devastating.

As a nonprofit provider, JVS services both the long-term unemployed through our WorkSource Centers and individuals receiving public assistance, who are generally facing multiple barriers to employment. It is a lot easier to get people back to work through their local WorkSource Center, a vital resource that is free to job seekers.

People receiving unemployment are still looking for work and, most importantly, still consider themselves part of the labor force. This is a critical motivator when an individual is preparing for interviews and meeting with prospective employers. The loss of unemployment benefits and the temporary safety net these benefits offer can trigger a downward spiral that leads to public assistance. Some people will give up the search and drop out of the labor force entirely because the daily pressures of job hunting, both physical and psychological, are simply overwhelming. The argument that unemployment insurance serves as a disincentive to look for work is nonsense. Joblessness is its own motivation. Ask Larry, Danielle or anybody else you meet on any given day at any WorkSource Center.

There is no question that the impact of political decisions made today will have multi-generational effects. The choice is clear. Congress must keep working to find a bipartisan solution to extend the lifeline that is federal unemployment insurance.