WASHINGTON – When Congress left town this week, it left the future of an unemployment insurance bill — and Gaithersburg resident Sylvester Harvey — up in the air.
Since his software development contract ended in June, Harvey has been looking for another job while he, his wife and his son try to make ends meet on his weekly unemployment check and her paycheck.
Despite networking, passing out business cards and going to employment seminars, however, Harvey is still looking for work. And his unemployment runs out in January — too late to qualify for a federal 13-week extension of benefits for anyone whose unemployment runs out by Dec. 27.
While House Republicans and Democrats both have proposed bills that would renew the extension of benefits past the Dec. 27 deadline, they could not agree on a bill in this session. And with Congress out of town, possibly until January, Harvey is left hanging.
“They’ve been talking about, ‘the economy is improving,'” Harvey said of lawmakers last month. “There seems to be a lag between what they’re saying and what is actually happening.”
Harvey is not alone. Each month about 4,000 Marylanders exhaust their state unemployment benefits, according to Maryland’s Office of Labor Market Analysis. The office does not track how many of those people who ran out of benefits either found other jobs or stopped looking for work.
About 134,600 Marylanders received unemployment benefits for some part of fiscal 2003, and roughly 49,500 exhausted their benefits in the same year, according to the state.
Unemployed workers in the state are eligible for 26 weeks of unemployment benefits.
Under the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act, which passed in March 2002, unemployed workers who exhaust their state benefits are eligible for another 13 weeks of benefits from the federal government. That act has been renewed by Congress three times, but is currently set to expire Dec. 27.
Democrats in the House and Senate were pushing bills that would extend federal unemployment benefits for a fourth time.
Their bills would grant another 26 weeks of benefits to people like Harvey, who are looking for work and exhaust their state benefits after the Dec. 27 deadline. They would also grant an additional 13 weeks to anyone who has already received 13 weeks of federal benefits under the previous extensions and is still looking for work.
“It’s not only the right thing to do from a compassionate point of view and the right thing to do from an economic point of view, the money is there for this specific purpose,” said Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Baltimore, a lead sponsor of the Democratic bill.
Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., introduced a competing bill, meanwhile, that would simply extend the current 13-week federal grant for another six months — the same approach Congress has been taking for the last two years.
But Republican leaders were reluctant to bring any bill out of committee this fall, saying at the time that an extension of benefits might be premature.
“The economy is rebounding, is growing stronger,” said a Republican staffer on the House Ways and Means Committee. “So members are going to want to evaluate the economy.”
While Congress wrangles, however, thousands more Marylanders are expected to lose their benefits, according to an October report by the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee.
For Harvey, the weekly check of less than $300 does not come anywhere near his former salary, but “it helps.” He would welcome an extension of benefits, but is quick to add that he will not relax on the job search, whether the extra money comes or not.
“What I really need is a job not the unemployment benefits,” Harvey said.