Unemployment Extension Standoff, Day 35: 'Harsh Reality Has Now Set In'

It's been 35 days since Congress allowed unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless to expire. So far, more than 1.7 million people who've been out of work for longer than six months have been left hanging.

The 2009 stimulus bill and subsequent legislation had given the unemployed up to 99 weeks of checks. Without the federally-funded extended benefits, which lapsed at the end of May due to congressional deficit concerns, layoff victims in most states are eligible for only 26 weeks of help. The average duration of unemployment is 35 weeks.

Donna Ripley of Stockton, N.J. told HuffPost her 26 weeks ran out on May 29 -- one week after the eligibility deadline for the first "tier" of federally-funded benefits. "Needless to say that to miss the deadline because of one lousy week was extremely disappointing," Ripley wrote. "Silly me was still confident that our lawmakers would do the right thing and pass legislation to extend benefits... harsh reality has now set in. It has been four weeks without a check and times are tough."

Ripley added that she has had much difficulty getting through to a person at the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Marc Katz, a spokesman for the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, said the lapse has resulted in "more calls, more intensity, more confusion" at state labor departments.

"Customers are more desperate, more angry, and are less optimistic about the likelihood of Congress passing continued extensions," wrote a staffer in the Idaho Labor Department in an email to NASWA. "As one would expect, the customers who would have exhausted their latest tier and would have access to an additional tier except for this lapse are the most upset."

Steve Santos of Zion, Ill. said he applied for food stamps and has been "freaking out" since his checks stopped coming.

"My 26 weeks from the state ran out as Congress was not renewing the bill," said Santos, who is 55 and said he lost his job as a retail manager in November. "So because I did not lose my job til the 'end' of the recession or file until I absolutely had no choice, I get jobbed out of benefits?"

By the time Congress returns from its July 4 recess next week, more than 2.1 million will have missed checks. The House passed a bill to reauthorize the benefits last week; a similar bill failed in the upper chamber due to a Republican filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that as soon as there is a replacement for the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Democrats will have the 60 votes they need and the bill will pass. If Reid is correct, layoff victims will be paid retroactively for any missed checks.

Without a reauthorization, 3.2 million long-term unemployed will have found themselves ineligible for extended benefits by the end of the month. If Congress fails to act, it will be the first time since at least the 1950s that federally-funded extended benefits have been allowed to lapse with a national unemployment rate above 7.2 percent.

"I received my last check on June 24th. If Congress doesn't approve the extension, I will have no money," said Shanae Dale of Louisville, Ky, who said she was laid off in December. "I will not be able to pay my rent, car insurance, utility bills or buy groceries. I would like to know how many of the members of Congress can't sleep at night because the only thing that occupies their minds is finding a job and paying bills."