Vermonters max out unemployment

By:  Dan Barlow
Vermont Press Bureau

MONTPELIER – A national unemployment group said this month that more than 1,100 Vermonters will max out their federal unemployment benefits by the end of September, although state officials say the true number could be lower.

The National Employment Law Project, an employee rights advocacy group, issued a report in August showing that 1.5 million people across the country would max out their unemployment benefits by the end of 2009.

In Vermont, the organization said that 1,172 people would max out their federal unemployment benefits by the end of the month and a total of 1,860 would max out by the end of the year.

"For people who have been laid off from their fields, there just aren't any new jobs out there," said Lindol Atkins Jr., the president of the Vermont State Labor Council, who is urging the U.S. Congress to extend benefits. "It comes down to taking a job at McDonald's or staying unemployed … they are just not finding the jobs in their line of work."

Vermont supplies laid-off workers with up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, typically a fraction of their previous salary. Once those are exhausted, the federal government offers another 33 weeks of benefits, a lifeline that has already been extended once this year as part of the economic stimulus package.

Once those are both exhausted, some workers will qualify for another 13 weeks of state unemployment benefits, which is where some of the differences between NELP's numbers and the states' numbers arise.

"That sounds high to us," said Patricia Moulton-Powden, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Labor, on Tuesday afternoon.

Moulton-Powden said about 5,100 Vermonters are receiving federal unemployment benefits right now, but once those are exhausted, many of those residents, if they haven't yet found new work, can tap into the 13 weeks of extended state benefits.

"According to our records, 213 people exhausted their federal benefits by the end of August," she said, adding that she expects the number to increase by a few hundred more by the end of 2009. "Even if that other number is right, and it still seems very high to me, there is still an additional 13 weeks of benefits for them."

But when presented with the report from NELP on Wednesday, the Labor Department came forward with new numbers, although they still thought the statistic released by the national group was too high and did not factor in the additional state benefits.

According to the department, 702 Vermonters have maxed out their federal unemployment benefits so far this year and 319 exhausted all their unemployment benefits, including the final round of state funds.

The department said they expect between 30-40 people each week between now and the end of the year will reach the end of their federal unemployment benefits.

Despite the disagreement over the specific number of Vermonters who will no longer be receiving financial help from the state and federal government, one thing was clear: Across the state, there are lots of – and soon will be more – families out of work and without any regular income.

"I lived right on the edge for a long time, although I am retired now," Atkins said. "Vermonters are used to making ends meet, but we don't want to think that our children will have to scrape by too."

Extending the federal unemployment benefits again seems to have some bipartisan support in Washington, D.C., with key senators from both parties supporting a modest and temporary extension. Atkins said Vermont's congressional delegation is generally in support of extending benefits at this time.

"There are a lot of Vermonters at the end of their rope," said U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. during a phone call Wednesday afternoon. "They want to work, but there are no jobs out there. Meanwhile the bills piling up have gone from a molehill to a mountain."

Welch said he supports expanding the federal unemployment benefits during what he calls "the deepest and most severe economic recession since the Great Depression." With many economists now suggesting that this will be a jobless recovery at first, Welch said these checks are necessary to keep Vermont families afloat.

"These are lifelines for a lot of people," Welch said. "I've told leadership that we need to tackle this and it needs to be done this year."

According to U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders' office, the Senate Finance Committee will begin holding hearings on this topic in the next several weeks. But the main proposals right now on the table would only help out states with high unemployment, leaving Vermont out of the mix.

Sanders said the United States should fund extended unemployment benefits by eliminating "corporate welfare and tax havens …"

"In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and at a time when long-term unemployment is extremely high, we cannot turn our backs on jobless Americans by letting their unemployment insurance expire," Sanders said in a prepared statement Tuesday.

Moulton-Powden said she sees extending the federal unemployment benefits as a "mixed bag," but ultimately believes that the extra help will "be going to those who truly need it."

"If it helps people to get back to work, some modest extension seems appropriate," she said.