Hundreds of thousands of long-term unemployed people across the country are watching in despair as Congress limps toward a reauthorization of jobless aid programs that won't even help them.
They are the 99ers, people who have exhausted the maximum 99 weeks of unemployment benefits available in some states. They're a new animal, as Congress extended the number of weeks available to the laid-off in response to this recession, and their ranks will swell to a million this year. The House will vote on a bill today to preserve the four "tiers" that make up those 99 weeks, set to expire on June 1, through November. The Senate has already left town for its Memorial Day recess; the program will briefly lapse before the senators return to give their approval.
The National Employment Law Project, the foremost professional lobbying force in favor of extending unemployment benefits, is fighting just to maintain the existing tiers. Some 99ers have launched their own grassroots lobbying campaigns from outside the Beltway. One woman started a petition demanding a "Tier V," which was delivered to Washington last week. And one layoff victim started a coalition of his peers, called AFTLU: Advocacy for the Long Term Unemployed.
Few members of Congress have said they support adding more weeks of benefits to begin with, but on Thursday House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) delivered one of the most definitive statements shutting the door on a fifth tier. When a reporter asked Pelosi if Congress would give the long-term unemployed more weeks of benefits, she said, "No. This bill will go until the end of November, at that time we'll take up something, but not between now and then."
That statement didn't go over well with 99ers, who devour all news related to unemployment benefits online.
"I can not believe it - I cannot believe that she actually smirked as she was talking about it," wrote one person on www.unemployed-friends.com, who watched Pelosi's press conference on C-SPAN. This 99er's post seemed to give voice to many of the frustrations of the group:
"I called the White House and spoke to a very nice operator (sounded like an older women). I never have broke down in tears before when making phone calls, but this time I did. I told her how Nancy appeared during the briefing, almost laughing at the notion that people need additional weeks. I vented on everything from money sent out of country to help with disasters, to the Republicans and Dems going round and round in Washington and how thousands of us will be exhausting our benefits each and every month. Wanted to know why the president is not coming out publicly and talking to the nation about the unemployment problem. The more I talked the harder I was crying. The operator kept trying to calm me down, saying she was going to pass the info onto the President. She said that we shouldn't be treated this way. She told me to call Pelosi's office - I cut her off and said that as soon as her aide hears the word unemployment they either put you through to voice mail or hang up on you. She said that this info would definitely be passed on (What good will it do? Don't know but can always hope). Sure enough I called Pelosi's office and when I started to speak got transferred to her voice mail - twice - 3rd time I told the aide not to transfer me but to listen to what I had to say. Went on to say that she laughed at us and what a despicable thing that was to do. He said he can't believe she did that, was I sure - told him it was all over the internet and to watch the video himself. He asked if he could transfer me to her voice mail - he did and I left her a message - ending with what a horrible horrible person she is and that the country will pay back in November.
"Dear God I dont know what I am going to do - I have just one more week of benefits, and a little in the bank. There are not enough jobs plus my age is not helping. I'm just so afraid for all of us - afraid for this country. Why won't someone help up."