Jobless hold vigil in Philadelphia as phaseout of benefits looms

Speaking at the vigil is John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. Economists generally agree that aid to the jobless should be extended, but disagree on some details.
Speaking at the vigil is John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. Economists generally agree that aid to the jobless should be extended, but disagree on some details.
Posted: November 23, 2010

Rashidah Johnson never thought she would find herself standing in front of a crowd of people crying, but sometimes being unemployed and all the indignities that go with it are just too much.

And so, as television cameras whirred Monday at a vigil for the unemployed, Johnson, her voice thick with tears, described how, at 39, she lost her apartment and had to move back to her parents' home in the city's West Oak Lane neighborhood.

"I have worked so long," she said, speaking at the vigil at the Arch Street Methodist Church in Center City. "I went to school and I did everything I was supposed to do, but I'm still unemployed."

Effective this week, federal unemployment-benefit extensions begin to phase out, and Johnson will be among the first of two million Americans, including 18,000 in Philadelphia, to suffer the consequences.

Johnson, who lost her job as a claims adjuster in March, will receive her last check on Sunday, $586 to cover two weeks, for a total of 46 weeks of unemployment benefits - much less than the 99 weeks given to others who lost their jobs earlier in the economic downturn.

In July, Congress enacted an extension to federal unemployment benefits, but that extension runs out at the end of this week. A House vote Thursday to extend federal benefits for three months failed. So far, there is no other vote scheduled. Extending benefits would cost about $5 billion a month, according to some estimates.

A quick primer on unemployment aid:

When people lose their jobs, they can obtain 26 weeks of unemployment benefits paid for by the state. In good times, those are the only benefits available.

But as the recession deepened, Congress passed a series of four federally funded extensions of 20, 14, 13, and 6 weeks, for a total of 53 weeks.

People can finish the extension they are on now, and if they finish up by Saturday, they can start and finish the next extension. But Johnson did not catch a break. She'll finish her first 20-week extension Dec. 4, and will not be able to get any other extensions.

Beyond the federal extensions, the federal government also helped states extend benefits for an additional 20 weeks, for a total of 99 weeks of benefits.

But without federal help, those 20-week extended-benefit programs in Delaware and Pennsylvania will come to an abrupt end, effective Dec. 4. New Jersey's program continues, although the number of weeks is shortened.

In Pennsylvania, 83,000 people will begin to lose their benefits in December, with more phasing out each month. By the end of April, 355,500 will cycle off all unemployment benefits.

In Delaware, 850 to 1,000 people a week will begin to phase out, starting in December, estimated Thomas MacPherson, director of the Division of Unemployment Insurance.

Economists generally agree that unemployment benefits should be extended, but they disagree on how long and under what circumstances.

William Beach, senior economist for the conservative Heritage Foundation, says that benefits should be extended for several months, but with the strong message that there will be no more extensions.

Benefits, he said, discourage people from looking for work. "I know it's difficult to find work," he said, but when people are on benefits for nearly two years, they lose touch with the job market.

Economist Mark Zandi, with Moody's Analytics in West Chester, said jobless benefits should be extended as long as the unemployment rate is above 7 percent. The national rate is now 9.6 percent, and it remains above 11 percent in Philadelphia.

"I think it would be a serious mistake if they did not extend emergency unemployment insurance into next spring," Zandi said.

"A couple of million workers will run out of benefits in the key shopping season," he said. "It is a very significant hardship to those families and a real threat to the fragile economic recovery."

Neither Zandi nor Beach attended Monday's vigil at Arch Street Methodist, already decorated for the Christmas holidays. Instead, there were politicians and preachers, unemployed workers and advocates - each with a story.

At one point, about a dozen members of the International Longshoremen's Association walked in to lend support. They had just been at another rally to save their union jobs, which are being moved to another facility where the workers earn less.

The politicians and preachers who spoke were polished and passionate, but the words of the unemployed resonated most with the 200 sitting in the church's wooden pews.

Among those who spoke was Patricia McNamara, 61, of East Oak Lane, who was laid off from her city job 14 months ago and will soon come to the end of her unemployment benefits.

"Congress needs to put politics aside and do something," she said.

Eric Nelson, interim director of the city's Workforce Investment Board, said that the unemployed should use resources available through the state, such as CareerLinks, the state's employment system.

"I appreciate the deficit issue," he said, "but when it hits home in our district, maybe there could be a minor extension, just to get folks over the hump in the holiday season."

Without benefits, he said, more and more will turn to various other forms of taxpayer-funded public assistance, such as welfare and food stamps. "One way or the other, we're all going to have to pay."


Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

|
|
|
|
|