The Current State Of Unemployment Benefits

Michele Norris talks to Maurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project about the current state of unemployment benefits.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

For a better understanding of exactly what unemployment benefits have lapsed and what might be restored, we turn to Maurice Emsellem. He is the co-policy director for the National Employment Law Project. And we asked him to explain the different categories of benefits.

Mr. MAURICE EMSELLEM (Co-policy Director, National Employment Law Project): Right now, there are state unemployment benefits available which is 26 weeks of benefits, and then there are the federal extensions. The maximum you can collect by way of a federal extension is 73 weeks. That adds up to 99 weeks.

The federal extensions are broken down into four tiers depending on the state's unemployment rate. So, all states qualify for 34 weeks. If you have over 6 percent unemployment, you get another 13. If you have over eight and a half percent unemployment, you get another six weeks.

So, the folks who are running out of benefits right now are two big groups. First, there are the folks who are running out of their state unemployment benefits and there's no federal extension for them. That's a big group of people. Then, there is the second group of those who are running out of a particular tier. Say you're on the first tier and you get the first 20 weeks, you can't move up to tier two to the next 14 weeks because there's no extensions.

NORRIS: How many workers are we talking about who are at risk of now losing their benefits?

Mr. EMSELLEM: Well, as of the end of last week, 1.7 million workers had already prematurely lost out on their federal extended benefits. By the end of next week that number will go up to 2.1 million workers. By the next week after that, which is around the time when Congress will reconvene and take up the legislation, we're talking about 2.5 million workers, long-term unemployed, who are without their unemployment benefits.

NORRIS: What about COBRA benefits?

Mr. EMSELLEM: So, I'm glad you mentioned that, Michele, because we're talking about the extensions right now, but it's very important to understand that Congress has already - in the midst of, you know, very high levels of unemployment, almost 10 percent unemployment - has already taken back several of the benefits that were made available by the Recovery Act in February 2009. That includes the subsidy for COBRA benefits. Congress provided 65 percent subsidy for folks who qualified for COBRA; that helped almost 2 million workers since February.

NORRIS: And we should say that this helps workers hold on to their health insurance. That's what we're talking about with COBRA benefits.

Mr. EMSELLEM: Helps workers - exactly. If your employer was providing health benefits, then you can continue the coverage and the federal government was paying 65 percent of that. So, you know, for the average worker, that meant that they had to still come up with about $400 a month to cover the COBRA, but there's a big difference between $400 and $1,200, $1,500 when you're employed.

So, that's been taken away. None of the proposals in Congress right now would include that. There's a great amendment that Senators Casey and Brown have proposed to continue the COBRA coverage. So, that's really important.

And then there was also a boost in the benefits, an extra $25 a week in state and federal benefits that were made available by the Recovery Act. Helps you buy a couple more bags of groceries every month. And now, there's talk about eliminating those benefits as well.

I've been doing this work for almost 20 years now. I've been through a couple major recessions and never in my experience have we been talking about cutting back benefits when we have these huge levels of unemployment.

NORRIS: Now, some members of Congress, particularly conservative Republican members of Congress, say that the reason they're objecting to this is, in part, that the states need to step up and do more of their part. Do they have a point?

Mr. EMSELLEM: I mean, not when it comes to unemployment benefits, certainly. This is not just about individual states and how they're doing. This is about the national recovery. There's talk of a double dip recession. We should be doing everything possible to stimulate the economy, send a message that this is an economy that's moving in the right direction. And we're not doing that when we pull the plug on these benefits.

NORRIS: Mr. Emsellem, thank you very much.

Mr. EMSELLEM: Thanks.

NORRIS: That's Maurice Emsellem. He is the co-policy director for the National Employment Law Project.

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