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Are benefits on the brink?

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JAMES P. LEUTE
April 11, 2010
— More than 600 Rock and Walworth county residents have lost federal unemployment benefits since February, and the local roster will grow with each week that Congress doesn’t pass an extension of jobless benefits.

Members of Congress are due back in Washington on Monday after a two-week spring break.


Just before the break, the Senate debated but couldn’t pass a 30-day extension of unemployment benefits already approved by the House. Democrats and Republicans argued over whether the extension should be offset by spending cuts, as Republicans demand, or whether it constitutes an emergency, as Democrats contend.


“Unemployment insurance helps thousands of Wisconsin families afford housing, food, medical expenses and other essential needs,” said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin. “With Wisconsin’s unemployment rate over 8 percent, now is not the time to delay getting these critical benefits into the hands of vulnerable families.


“The Senate is scheduled to consider this overdue extension this week, and I will continue working to make sure these federal unemployment benefits are quickly extended.”


Last week alone, the Congressional inaction meant the end of benefits for more than 200,000 unemployed people, according to the New York-based National Employment Law Project.


“The long slog of looking for work and surviving on jobless benefits is going to continue for millions of Americans,” said Christine Owens, the project’s executive director.


“It’s Congress’ job now to take effective and aggressive steps to create jobs and extend unemployment through the end of the year, so that the economy can get back on its feet.”


If Congress doesn’t get an extension to President Barack Obama for his signature this week, unemployment benefits will disappear for another 161 dislocated workers in Rock and Walworth counties.


Each week since Feb. 2, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development has mailed form letters to state residents one to three weeks before their unemployment benefits will end.


Through last week, the state had sent 13,482 letters, including 644 that landed in Rock County mailboxes and 215 that went to Walworth County addresses.


When it first learned that the state would be mailing the letters, the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board set up a series of weekly events that brought all of the area’s displacement service providers to the Rock County Job Center.


“Quite frankly, those were not all that well attended,” said Bob Borremans, the board’s executive director. “Since these letters started going out, we haven’t really seen an increase in the number of people coming to the job center for services.”


While all area providers are represented at the center, Borremans has been told people with exhausted benefits have been directly contacting individual agencies and organizations.


“Unfortunately, those organizations are at capacity and not really in any position to serve a new population,” he said. “Their budgets have been pinched, too.”


Generally, unemployed individuals are eligible for 26 weeks of regular benefits that now carry a maximum benefit of $388 per week.


But depending upon when they were laid off, workers may have been eligible for up to 99 weeks of benefits because of a series of federal extensions. The extensions, which began in July 2008, tacked 73 weeks onto the original 26 weeks.


Wisconsin’s rising unemployment rate in the last 20 months fueled many of those extensions. But the state’s rate has recently fallen, and a six-week extension of unemployment benefits was rescinded.


That means most workers displaced by the recent recession now have a total of 93 weeks of unemployment—barring any future extensions.


Those 93 weeks will expire in the next few weeks for many of the Rock County workers laid off in July 2008 when General Motors cut its second shift of production in Janesville.


At that time, layoffs attributed to GM and its Janesville suppliers Lear Corp. and LSI topped 1,300.


While many of those GM workers have since taken early retirement and buyouts or transferred to other manufacturing plants, others soon will see an end to federal unemployment benefits if Congress doesn’t act.


Their Supplemental Unemployment Benefits—negotiated between the automaker and the their union—also will soon evaporate.


Other workers, particularly those laid off from Lear Corp., still have federal Trade Adjustment Assistance that extends unemployment benefits for additional education and training.


“TAA is a Cadillac of benefits, and I would encourage those people eligible for it to take advantage of it,” Borremans said. “That money won’t be around forever.”


In late March, the Department of Labor announced that dislocated workers in Rock County would share in a $684,122 National Emergency Grant for retraining.


It was the third such award to benefit local workers. Two previous grants totaled $6.1 million and covered more than 2,300 workers displaced in the local auto manufacturing sector.


On a more positive note, Borremans said, the Rock County Job Center is getting more job postings.


Last fall, the center received 15 to 20 postings a week. That number is now up to 40 or 50.


“There appears to be a slow pickup in the number of local job opportunities,” Borremans said. “That’s a good sign.”



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