An emergency five-year program extending unemployment benefits from 26 to 63 weeks in Connecticut ended on Jan. 1, imperiling more than 26,000 Conn. Residents who relied on the federal program to cover basic living expenses.
Congress extended unemployment benefits beyond 26 weeks in 2008 to support millions of Americans newly jobless from the recession. However, political infighting in Washington has left the fate of the extension in limbo, cutting off benefits for Conn. residents who have surpassed the 26-week limit and threatening thousands more who are fast approaching the new cap. The loss of federal benefits has already sucked $8.5 million from the state’s economy each week, according to Connecticut Department of Labor spokeswoman Nancy Steffens, who added that the effects of the lapse will resonate throughout the state’s economy as former beneficiaries sharply reduce spending.
Since she stopped receiving unemployment insurance, Cheryl Mobley of Windsor, Conn. has supported her 16 year-old son, her 20 year-old daughter and herself on child support payments amounting to about $100 a week. When she was laid off from her job as an account associate at National Default Services in March 2013, the family lost their home on a cul-de-sac in East Hartford.
Now, Mobley said she doesn’t know how long they’ll be able to stay in their new apartment in Windsor.
“The worst thing is having to come home and tell your children that you’re no longer working, because the first thing you see is disappointment in their eyes,” Mobley said. “You can see the disappointment and you can see the fear.”
Mobley said she treats her search for work like a full-time job, but she is frequently told there are as many as 100 other applicants for a single position. Though it has consistently declined over the past three months, Connecticut’s unemployment rate consistently hovers over half a point above the national average, at 7.6 percent in November as compared to 7 percent across the nation.
With just one job opening for every three job seekers, traffic to the state’s career services offices has increased since Dec. 28 as job searches become more urgent and people seek any possible edge in the job market, said Robert Fort, marketing director of the Workforce Alliance, which runs three CT Works Career Centers across the state. At these centers, unemployed and underemployed people can access free career counseling, practice job interviews, take online classes and work with resume advisers. Last year, visits to the centers increased 12.5 percent even as unemployment dipped, Fort said.
Thomas Knowlton of Wallingford, Conn. has used CT Works’ services throughout his search for a new career. He left his job as a fast food manager in 2012 when his supervisors sharply reduced his pay, and he has been unemployed since. Like Mobley, he said he feels employers discriminate against him because of his age and the length of his unemployment.
“The job market is beyond abysmal for anyone that’s older,” Knowlton said.
At 61, rather than planning for his retirement, Knowlton said he is instead studying for a master’s degree to begin a new career in telecommunications. In seeking additional training to become more employable, Knowlton is not alone, Steffens said.
“Before the recession, our major task was helping people improve their skills to get a better job,” Steffens said. “Now we’re working with people to help them improve their skills just so they can get a job.”
Republicans in Congress argue that extending unemployment benefits would encourage people to remain unemployed for longer amounts of time. However, Steffens said she is more concerned that cutting the benefits short might have the same effect as job seekers give up and drop out of the workforce. She is also concerned that those who remain in the workforce may become less productive as they are less able to secure basic needs such as food and heating.
Connecticut Food Bank spokeswoman Mary Ingarra said that the unemployment benefits lapse could put additional strain on non-profit organizations across the state, particularly after cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that took effect Nov. 1. In Connecticut, the SNAP cuts were equal to 17 million meals a year.
“[The Connecticut Food Bank] is already seeing the demand every year go up, and then you have this SNAP cut, and then you look at the unemployment benefits,” Ingarra said. “It’s amazing how it adds up and what’s missing now from people’s dinner tables.”
On Tuesday night, several Democratic proposals to extend unemployment benefits once more failed in the Senate. Congress will take a recess from Jan. 17-27, pushing any legislative action on a federal benefits extension to the end of January, at the earliest.
The average Connecticut beneficiary received $327 from the federal government each week.