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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. At the top of Congress' to do list when lawmakers return next week is whether to renew emergency unemployment benefits. An extension of those benefits expired at the end of the year. That means 1.3 million Americans are no longer getting unemployment checks.
Regardless of where they stand on a possible extension, conservative and liberal economists both would like to see the government improve the underlying program. They're proposing changes that might help more people find work more quickly. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: At a small manufacturing company south of Boston, Evalise Pachenko(ph) is cleaning out the inside of a component for a heart pump. It's used in surgery and she's using a microscope to inspect the part.
EVALISE PACHENKO: You see right there, you have to make sure it's clean and no fuzz around.
ARNOLD: Six months ago, Pachenko was collecting unemployment. She got laid off working at a cardboard box manufacturer that went out of business, but a friend of hers told her about a job opening here at this much higher tech factory. It's called Machine, Inc.
PACHENKO: My friend Rosemary said to apply and I applied and in a week, they called and I was really, really happy about that, instead of being home and collecting.
ARNOLD: Is it more interesting than making cardboard boxes, or...
PACHENKO: Yes, definitely. Yes, it is.
ARNOLD: Economists say this is how unemployment benefits and the job market are supposed to work together. Pachenko has three young kids at home. Her partner's only making about $700 a month, so with the benefits she said a bridge that helped the family survive for nearly a year. Now she's got a better job with the same pay as she had before, but she's learning new skills and there's more room for growth.
PACHENKO: You have to pay attention really because it's like, again, medical stuff and airplane stuff so it's interesting. I have training for, like, three months so I think doing good.
ARNOLD: That's one way economists say the unemployment insurance program could be improved, helping people to get training while their collecting.
DEAN BAKER: Community colleges have been, you know, a good investment that have enable people to get skills to get, you know, somewhat better-paying jobs.
ARNOLD: Dean Baker is the co-director of the liberal-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research. He says, though, many states don't do enough to support unemployed people getting that sort of training. He'd also like to see more of what's called work sharing. This is something that's reduced unemployment in Germany, actually.
Basically, instead of laying people off, a company could just reduce hours for most of its workers. And for the time that they're not working, the government could then use unemployment money to pay them. And some conservatives like this idea, too.
MICHAEL STRAIN: I would like for Congress to make it mandatory.
ARNOLD: That's Michael Strain, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute. He says in 2012, Congress authorized this German-style work sharing option for employers, but it's only up and running in some states. Strain has other ideas, too. Some involved helping workers to get to areas where there are more jobs.
STRAIN: In some of the states, the labor market is booming and healthy and unemployment is really low so I suggested that we offer relocation vouchers to the long term unemployed. You know, only to the people who want them so no one's being forced to move or anything, but, you know, we say, hey, look, you've been looking for a job for seven months and you haven't found one yet. Do you want us to cut you a check and you can move to North Dakota or move somewhere where the labor market is much healthier?
ARNOLD: There are lots of other ideas, too. But as far as whether Congress should extend benefits when lawmakers come back next week, Michael Strain says yes.
STRAIN: I think it's a mistake that Congress let the benefits expire.
ARNOLD: For one, Strain says that long term unemployed workers are more likely to drop out of the work force and give up if they get cut off, but also, he says, there are still three times as many people looking for work as there are job openings so that means that hundreds of thousands of Americans just won't be able to find a job any time soon.
STRAIN: Society is failing for them. Really, through no fault of their own.
ARNOLD: Still, some other conservatives oppose extending benefits again. They're worried about the cost and also some feel that workers would be looking more aggressively without the extended benefits. Next week, Congress will be debating the issues when lawmakers return. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.