Organized Labor Pushes for Unemployment Compensation Extension in Congress

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By Glynn Wilson

Pushed by organized labor, other advocacy groups and President Barack Obama, the U.S. Senate unexpectedly voted 60-37 in a test vote to limit further debate on legislation extending unemployment benefits, although Republicans in the House are likely to oppose the compromise, even if it adds nothing to the federal budget deficit.

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AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka: Glynn Wilson

Half a dozen Republicans sided with the Democrats on the test vote to get the necessary 60 votes.

“Let’s get it done,” President Barack Obama urged lawmakers from the White House shortly after the vote on Tuesday.

Republican Minority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said the Republicans in the Senate will still seek changes to keep the bill’s $6.4 billion cost from contributing to the deficit. Senate Democrats have not been for that, although there may be signs they would go along with it in a rare compromise in Washington.

Shortly after the Senate vote, House Speaker John Boehner, the Ohio Republican, issued a statement indicating the House would not consider it unless it did not add to the deficit.

At stake is the emergency unemployment compensation extension program started in 2008 under President George W. Bush, which expired at the end of 2013. If not extended, 1.3 million long-term unemployed workers, including union workers, will lose benefits critical to house and feed their families, according to the AFL-CIO.

“President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats have made it clear they want the program to go on, but House Republicans are refusing to act,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement.

Harvard economist Lawrence Katz says the “fiscally irresponsible” decision is costing America’s economy at least $600 million a week.

“It is actually fiscally irresponsible not to extend unemployment benefits,” Katz said. “The long-run cost to the taxpayers will be much higher from disconnecting people from the labor market.”

The program provided an average weekly payment of $305 to people who have been unemployed for longer than six months. The end of the program directly harms the economy because unemployed workers spend most, if not all, of the income they have as soon as they get it.

The failure to extend the program not only is a major problem for the families directly involved and a drag on the economy, it will cost more than 300,000 jobs if a solution isn’t found, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

“When Congress first passed this version of emergency unemployment compensation in 2008, and the president [George W. Bush] signed the law, the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent, and the average duration of unemployment was 17.1 weeks. Today, the unemployment rate is 7 percent,” Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said while explaining the need for the emergency program to continue. “The average duration of unemployment is now 36 weeks.”

The administration also says the long-term unemployment rate, the percentage of the workforce that has been looking for work for 6 months or longer, is more than 2.5 percent, well above the 1 percent economists say we should expect during normal times.

Two Democratic Senators, Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Dean Heller of Nevada, introduced a bill to extend the program and called for the test vote.

“Last year, lawmakers appallingly deserted 1.3 million jobless workers and went home for their own holiday without extending unemployment insurance benefits,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said. “The Senate took an important step to assist those still searching for work when it cleared the way for a temporary unemployment benefits bill.

“Unemployment insurance serves as a lifeline for millions of jobless Americans and their families,” Trumka said.

“For many job seekers, unemployment benefits are the difference between total hopelessness and a place to live and food on the table,” he said. “The urgent business before us now is fixing what’s wrong with our economy. Maintaining the unemployment benefits program won’t just keep families out of crisis. It helps to spur the economy and keep it growing.”

He said the Senate should quickly act to pass this bill and the House “must act immediately.”

“Further failure will mean more than 3 million more qualified people who will be denied extended benefits,” he added. “Millions of Americans counting on unemployment insurance to help them through tough times are counting on the House to do the right thing. We cannot afford to leave any working families behind.”

© 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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