Jobless in Pa., N.J., would be hurt by plunge off fiscal cliff

Tyrone McCall and Cheryl Fields protest at the Philadelphia CareerLink employment office on Spring Garden Street.
Tyrone McCall and Cheryl Fields protest at the Philadelphia CareerLink employment office on Spring Garden Street. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 26, 2012

Derrick Bridges is at the edge of the fiscal cliff, and what he sees isn't pretty.

"If they are going to cut me off, how am I going to feed my family?" asked Bridges, who lives in West Philadelphia and who was laid off as a bill collector in October 2011.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania are among the top four states that will be affected if funding for emergency extra jobless benefits falls off the fiscal cliff - the avalanche of tax cuts, tax increases, and program suspensions that will occur Dec. 31 unless Congress compromises.

If lawmakers fail to act, one in every 10 of the 2.1 million people who will lose emergency jobless benefits will be from these two states.

It's not because the states have the worst unemployment rates, although; at 9.7 percent in October, New Jersey's was above the national average of 7.9 percent, and Pennsylvania's rate stood at 8.2 percent.

It's that unemployment here appears to be particularly intractable, with 119,600 people in New Jersey and 115,300 in Pennsylvania tapping into the federal benefits available only after 26 weeks of joblessness.

Congress began to fund extra benefits in 2008, six months after the start of the recession.

In February, Congress said all extra benefits would be discontinued effective Dec. 31; the week ending Dec. 29 would be the last covered.

In New Jersey, laid-off residents now receive a total of 73 weeks of benefits, 47 of those weeks teetering on the edge of the fiscal cliff. In Pennsylvania, there are 63 weeks of benefits, with 37 on the chopping block.

In the rosy glow of optimism now prevailing in Washington, even likely proponents and opponents of continuing the benefits seem to agree they are necessary.

The basis for that is the persistent duration of long-term unemployment: The average length is 40.2 weeks, much longer than the 26 weeks of state-funded benefits.

Though many people find jobs more quickly, 40 percent are jobless more than six months - a historically high proportion. At the worst of the 1980s recession, 26 percent were out of work that long.

Those statistics allow James Sherk, a labor analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, to favor keeping the extra benefits but capping them at 60 weeks and finding cuts to offset the $30 billion the Congressional Budget Office says is necessary to fund the benefits in 2013.

"It is still a rough economy," Sherk said.

"There is a genuine appetite to solve this problem," said Judy Conti, who lobbies in Washington for the liberal National Employment Law Project. "We are emphasizing how severe this cutoff is."

In New Jersey, Hurricane Sandy has exacerbated the problem. People who file for unemployment now will run out of state benefits around May and will be unable to get more help unless Congress acts.

Complicating matters in Pennsylvania are continuing complaints about the state's phone-claim system. Constant busy signals and long waits worsened, many unemployed people say, after the Department of Labor and Industry closed a call center in Philadelphia and laid off 78 people, including 18 temporary workers.

Since then, the department has hired temporary workers in other call centers, including some who had been laid off.

"We have instituted a number of improvements to the phone system to help those calling the . . . call centers," spokeswoman Sara Goulet said.

Countered Sharon Dietrich, a lawyer with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, which has complained to the federal government about the state's service issues: "I don't think this is a problem that can be fixed by more technology.

"It is important that we construct a system that people can get their questions answered," she said.

Anxiety is likely to increase as the Washington situation goes unresolved, leading to more worried calls from the jobless.

The scenario alarms Bridges, who attended a rally Monday at the Pennsylvania CareerLink employment office at Ninth and Spring Garden Streets set up by the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, an advocacy group, and SEIU Local 668, which represents the laid-off call-center workers.

Bridges wonders whether people will turn to crime if they can't find work and can't get benefits. He's worried about his mortgage and about supporting his wife and baby.

"If you can't feed your family, what are you supposed to do?"


Contact Jane Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com, or follow @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.

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