Washington County reels from cuts to emergency unemployment benefits

Bonamici          The Senate’s passage of a five-year farm bill Tuesday was seen as long overdue.

Proponents include Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who fought to include wildfire and drought relief programs, as well as aid for organic farmers; and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, who authored a provision to enhance farm-to-food bank initiatives.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Beaverton) voted for the farm bill when it came before the House on Jan. 28. She sees the bill as one of many potential arguments for bringing back Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits, which expired at the end of last year.

The farm bill heads to President Barack Obama for approval, and will cut spending by about $2.3 billion, partly through $800 million cut from the federal food stamp program.

Bonamici saw this as a potential fix for critics of the EUC program, who have balked at its $25 billion price tag — although Bonamici takes issue with a push in Congress to change what had been a no-strings-attached approach to funding.

“(EUC) is what the administration has advocated for, and what has been done in the past,” Bonamici said. “Emergency funding does not traditionally have a pay-for or an offset.”

Obama criticized Congress’ decision to allow the benefits program to expire, calling emergency unemployment compensation “a vital economic outline.”

In January, a bill to provide a temporary three-month extension of emergency benefits stalled and ultimately died in the Senate two weeks ago.

A price too dear

In December 2013, Bonamici warned that a failure to offer EUC benefits will ultimately have a devastating impact on the local and federal economy.

“The Congressional Budget Office estimates 200,000 jobs (could be lost) if it’s not extended,” she said, “and nearly 5 million additional workers could lose benefits.”

Though she strongly disagreed the EUC program needed a pay-for, she remained optimistic that several options remained on the table.

“There are various ideas out there that have been proposed” to fund the program’s extension, Bonamici said during an interview with The Times on Jan. 28. “One of them that has been discussed (is using) savings from the farm bill that I have to go vote on in just a moment.”

When Obama summarized the State of the Union during his annual address Jan. 28, the state of employment in Washington County remained grim, even as the unemployment rate dipped slightly below the new statewide low of 7 percent.

But the unemployment rate is a poor metric of out-of-work job seekers, accounting only for those who are eligible for unemployment benefits. At the end of last year, 2,366 Washington County residents were cut from that pool as Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits ended, and Congress did not vote to extend the program, as it has done since the Great Recession began in earnest in 2008.

Local pain

A total of 19,145 Oregonians lost EUC benefits at the end of 2013. City-specific records are not kept on unemployment numbers, but according to Tom Fuller, the communications manager at the Oregon Unemployment Department, the average duration of an unemployment claim in Washington County was just over 34 weeks — with extended benefits, the state offers up to about 46 weeks of unemployment benefits, which are on average $320.30 each week.

Emergency Unemployment Compensation funding is four-tiered, with the first 14 weeks of additional benefits available to those who have been seeking full-time employment for 27 weeks or more. EUC offers up to 47 weeks of additional benefits that are variable based on the state’s unemployment rate.

Jobless applicants are eligible for EUC funds after they have exhausted two other levels of unemployment benefits. The first tier is largely state-funded, with Oregon offering up to 26 weeks of payment to eligible applicants. The Extended Benefits program, which has been federally funded since 2009, offers up to 20 weeks of additional compensation and is available depending on the state’s unemployment rate.

Congress must renew benefit extensions each year, and had done so since the EUC program was established in 2008.

Last year, Bonamici met with several residents from the 1st Congressional District who were classified as long-term unemployed, meaning they had been out of work for six months or longer.

She recalled a man who had worked in retail sales for more than 20 years, and whose wife was disabled. Without emergency benefits, he expected to become homeless.

Another woman had an master of business administration degree.

Bonamici noted many long-term unemployed were “mature workers,” with experience and qualifications.

“I will continue to advocate for the extension of the EUC, there is not a vote scheduled for that,” she said. “(The EUC program) is not a lot of money, and (not having it) makes it harder for people to find jobs. If they can’t afford gas in their car, or to pay their cellphone bill, how do we expect them to get to job interviews? To get a callback?”

Contract Publishing

Go to top
Template by JoomlaShine