Jobless Benefits to Run Out for Millions of Americans

(NECN: Peter Howe, New Bedford, Mass.) For Sharron Tetrault, Congress's debate over extending unemployment benefits set to expire Dec. 1 isn't just a news headline -- it's her life.

"In two weeks, I'm going to have no income at all, and I'm petrified,'' said Tetrault, a 1995 Framingham State College graduate who has been struggling to find work since being laid off from a human-services provider in January. "I've been looking for a job for about a year and a half. I've sent out hundreds of resumes. I've never felt so rejected and unwanted.'' With a background as a fiber-optic services saleswoman, social-cause advocate, volunteer coordinator and trainer, and writer, Tetrault said she has pursued every lead she can find. "I just really want a job, and I really want to get back to work -- and you know, there should be a safety net for people as well."

Currently, qualifying Americans can get up to 99 weeks of jobless benefits: The usual 26, plus 53 weeks under last year's emergency federal extension, and then another 20 in most higher-unemployment states. But the extension expires Wednesday, and now Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate are fighting over whether to extend it -- and if so, where else to cut in the deficit-riddled federal budget to come up with the roughly $5 billion monthly cost of re-extending jobless benefits. Some economists are gingerly beginning to raise the question of whether giving people unemployment checks for up to 21 months could become a disincentive to finding work. However, the average monthly benefit is $394 in Massachusetts, barely $20,000 a year, so it's unlikely there are a lot of people for whom an unemployment check is better than a paycheck.

Meanwhile, Sharron Tetrault says, "I'm just praying for a miracle. I'm in shock. I can't believe it's happening.''

In Massachusetts and other states, officials' advice to unemployed people is to continue to make a weekly claim for jobless benefits, even if the extension expires Wednesday. They're optimistic that some deal may be reached, and people who've made claims will be able to get paid benefits retroactively.

It's estimated 2 million unemployed Americans will be hit by the benefits cutoff over the next month, including in Massachusetts, 60,000 by Dec. 31, and then another 7,000 to 8,000 every week after that, according to the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

Around Massachusetts Tuesday, at demonstrations outside the local offices of Bay State congressmen, people like Lisa Richards sought to emphasize: This is all about people. Richards, a Framingham mother of seven who works two jobs, said both her husband and 61-year-old mother have been struggling with long-term unemployment.

"what does Congress need to hear?'' Richards said. "That people are hurting, and the economy is not turning around as fast for the bottom half.''

Outside Representative Michael Capuano's office in Roxbury, Terri Hinton of the Boston Workers Alliance said, "people are soon not going to be able to feed their families, so it's really imperative and really urgent" Congress act soon.

Tetrault, who's temporarily living with her mother and wheelchair-bound grandmother in New Bedford, said, "I can't even stand the thought that I'm going to have no income, no way to pay my phone bills. So how are employers supposed to get in touch with me? Never mind food to eat or a roof over my head."

With videographer Brian Butler and video editor Sean G. Colahan

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