Unemployment benefits ending?

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December 7, 2012, 7:42 pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) - Along with all the other "fiscal cliff" nightmares of tax increases and deep spending cuts looming at the end of this month, one has gone largely underreported: The threat of some 2.1 million long-term unemployed Americans – including 102,500 in New England – losing their last monthly jobless benefits unless Congress acts.

The Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, a federally-funded add-on to state-run unemployment insurance plans, is set to expire Dec. 29, and it’s not clear whether President Obama and Congress will agree to extend it in some form or roll that issue into a broader fiscal cliff deal.

Among those who’s been notified he’ll lose his roughly $300-a-month benefit: Bill DiCarlo, 60, of Boston’s Hyde Park section. He was laid off from the American Red Cross in October 2011 when his operation was shifted to Charlotte, N.C., and says of the 116 people in his group, just three have since found full-time jobs. He’s picked up shifts working as a city school crossing guard, and his wife works two part-time jobs as a hairstylist and landscape planter – but he’s fallen behind on a mortgage that Bank of America refuses to modify. Despite having worked for the old First National Bank of Boston before Fleet bought it and laid him off, for a courier company, for a radio station and in several other positions, DiCarlo has struggled to land a new job for the whole last year. Among other challenges, he’s found his old skills in computers and technology are years out of date.

"I love people, I love making people happy -- if they have a problem, I will do anything. It’s just you know it's hard selling yourself," DiCarlo said.

He also finds his age works against him.

"I really think, and this is my opinion, that there's an age discrimination," DiCarlo said.

DiCarlo can’t yet imagine just how he and his family will cope without the small EUC benefit he gets every month, figuring he will just fall further behind on his mortgage and water bill and other bills.

Across New England, according to U.S. Labor Department data, 102,500 New Englanders like DiCarlo will lose their EUC benefits Dec. 29 unless Congress acts: 50,100 in Massachusetts, 33,600 in Connecticut, 8,700 in Rhode Island, 6,400 in Maine, 2,400 in New Hampshire and 1,300 in Vermont.

And the National Employment Law Project says 2.1 million Americans will be hit Dec. 29, another 400,000 in the month of January, rising to a total of over 3 million long-term unemployed Americans losing their benefits by the end of March. It estimates it would cost the federal government $30 billion to extend EUC in 2013 – compare that to the $1.1 trillion deficit the Obama administration and Congress will ring up this year – suggesting it’s a program the Congress and Obama can likely find some way to extend in some form. But there’s a lot of non-agreement to get anything done in Washington these days.

Someone who’s already been hit: Jeanette Cutts of Boston, a Cambridge College graduate and former state administrator, who lost her EUC benefits in October after two long years of seeking work – when she landed just two job interviews. With one of her five children still at home, she’s been burning up savings and piling up debt.

"The amount of stress that I know that I feel sometimes, as a person trying to figure out how is this going to happen, how is it going to continue to work is tremendous -- a tremendous amount of stress," Cutts said. In her experience, the problem is that jobs she is looking for that she once would have easily qualified for now have 1,000 or more people applying. "Sometimes people have a misconception about people who are unemployed, like they’re lazy, they’re unemployable, they’re not educated -- that's totally not true."

"The message I want to tell Washington is: Listen, let's get this done. There are real people who are really, really suffering at this point in time. And it's just tough … it's tough," Cutts said. "We voted for you. This is our America. How are we going to fix this? How are we going to fix this?"

On that, DiCarlo agrees emphatically, as he watches day after day of fiscal cliff "talks" that seem to lead only to more posturing and more blame game.

"I don't think the politicians know what it's like to go through what we're going through," said DiCarlo, bouncing his one and only grandchild, Chase, who’s 17 months old, on his lap. "I'd really like to see the president and all these politicians -- I'd like to see them come out and sit in our chair and see how we feel."

John Drew, CEO of Action for Boston Community Development, an anti-poverty organization that has worked with both DiCarlo and Cutts to help them find jobs, said the many people threatened with losing EUC benefits "are people who worked hard all their lives and lost their jobs in the recent economic downturn. They have been struggling enough trying to live on unemployment while they look for work – now what will they do?"

Drew said many could wind up homeless, or needing emergency food assistance or other expensive social safety-net programs.

"If unemployment benefits are not reauthorized by Congress, the government and taxpayers will spend far more on emergency shelter and other survival programs than they would on jobless benefits," Drew said. "Extending unemployment payments stimulates the economy – it not only keeps people struggling for a foothold in the work world afloat, it helps all of us."

With videographer John J. Hammann.

Tags: Boston, congress, unemployment , Peter Howe, unemployment benefits, fiscal cliff, National Employment Law Project, Emergency Unemployment Compensation program
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