By Heather Coppley and David M. Pittman
WASHINGTON – An estimated 31,400 Marylanders stand to lose unemployment benefits unless Congress acts to pump more money to the state-run programs by the end of the year, according to an independent report released Tuesday.
The report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said that more than 3 million people nationwide will exhaust their unemployment benefits in the next five months, leaving them without resources before the economy has a chance improve.
“Even though unemployment insurance checks aren’t big, they can mean the difference between putting food on the table and not,” said the center’s Jessica Goldberg, who helped prepare the study.
Maryland labor officials questioned the center’s report, saying 31,400 potentially affected Marylanders seemed high. But they agreed with the need for a second round of extensions.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s 9,000 or 15,000. It’s still a significant number of unemployed who need that money,” said Tom Wendel, director of the state’s Office of Unemployment.
The report comes as the Senate and House consider identical bills that would continue a program, set to expire Dec. 28, that adds at least 13 weeks of assistance to the standard 26 weeks of benefits.
The extensions are federally subsidized and do not come out of state budgets or their unemployment trust funds.
Maryland labor officials said the state has issued an average of $1.6 million in extended benefits to 2,000 people each month since March, when the first extension was approved by Congress. Wendel said he is not surprised that lawmakers are now talking about another extension.
“We knew back in March that they’d never let a program expire on Christmas week,” he said.
Opponents of another extension to the unemployment benefits have said that the March legislation was sufficient, and noted that there are another three months of benefits available for jobless workers.
Wendel defended the extensions, but said he also sees the futility in giving more money to the unemployed.
“People are desperate and they really need this money, but it’s sort of a Band-Aid at this point,” he said.
Currently, the nation’s jobless can receive unemployment checks for up to 26 weeks. The proposed extension would allow for an additional 13 weeks for most states, and 20 weeks for states with what the bill classifies as “high unemployment.”
The high unemployment designation is based on the number of people unemployed or who have exhausted benefits. Currently, 17 states qualify for the designation, but that could change if unemployment worsens.
The center study states that current temporary benefits do not compare to the extensions granted during the recession in the early 1990s.
According to Wendel, the state’s unemployed can receive a maximum of $280 per week in benefits. That would amount to $14,560 a year, well below the poverty level for a family of four.
He noted that the unemployed still must pay taxes on benefits and are not eligible for government food subsidy programs like Women, Infants and Children or additional money from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
“They need jobs more than they need unemployment benefits,” Wendel said.