By Jamey Dunn
Thousands of Illinoisans could lose long-term federal unemployment benefits at the start of the new year.
Congress is currently trying to work out a budget deal that both parties can live with, and the long-term benefits may be on the chopping block. The benefits kick in after the typical 26 weeks of state benefits run out. Currently, the maximum time frame over which benefits are allowed, including Illinois benefits and the federal benefits combined, is 73 weeks. The extension was signed into law by former President George W. Bush in 2008 at the beginning of the recent recession.
According to the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES), if Congress does not vote to continue the benefits, 80,000 people in the state would lose benefits in January. Those benefits total $25.6 million each week. The average weekly benefit to an individual is $320 and the largest possible benefit is $562. The 109,00 Illinoisans currently collecting state benefits would not be affected immediately, but 36,000 of them would qualify for the federal benefits if they do not find jobs in the first quarter of next year.
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, have been working to reach a deal that would set the spending numbers for a federal budget, and the unemployment benefits are reportedly on the table. The federal government shut down for more than two weeks in October, after lawmakers could not reach a budget agreement. Some Republicans held out on budget votes because they wanted to halt or delay the rollout of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The shutdown ended after Congress voted to fund the government through January 15.
U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said he hopes the benefits would be included but said it is not a deal breaker at this point. Durbin told CNN that the benefits might be addressed in a separate bill. "From my understanding, that's more between [House] Speaker [John] Boehner and (President Barack Obama) at this point,” he told CNN. Boehner has said he is open to approving a continuation of the benefits.
An estimated 1.3 million would lose benefits nationwide. Continuing the program would cost projected $25 billion. Supporters say that while the country has technically recovered from the recession, continuing high unemployment rates and the large numbers of long-term unemployed people across the country indicate that the benefits are still needed. “While today’s job growth allows most newly unemployed individuals to find work after a several weeks, the long-term unemployed face additional hurdles,” IDES Director Jay Rowell said in a prepared statement. “Ending this modest program based on a calendar date rather than economic principles and job skills could slow economic growth.”
But those who are opposed to continuing the program argue that the feds must step down the spending that was justified by the country’s economic collapse. “These have been extraordinary extensions, and the Republican position all along has been, we need to get back to normal here at some point,” U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, told ABC News. “I don’t see much appetite from our side for an extension of benefits. I just don’t.”