Baltimore man among layoff victims asking Congress to extend benefits

February 07, 1991|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Albert Hall, a laid-off Baltimore truck driver and bricklayer's helper, came to Congress yesterday to say that 26 weeks of unemployment benefits won't cut it.

"I can't live my life on 26 weeks," said 33-year-old Mr. Hall, whose benefits and pay from a part-time janitorial job of three months bring in $230 every two weeks.

Mr. Hall was joined by more than a dozen other laid-off workers from Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York who said the current benefits limit for most states expires before they can find a decent job.

"The current, 26 weeks of unemployment benefits . . . is not enough," said Margaret Jenkins, 52, who was laid off from a job in Philadelphia as a hotel maid.

The unemployed people were gathered outside a room where the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources was holding the first of four hearings on unemployment insurance and the recession.

"We need to examine extending benefits," said Representative Thomas J. Downey, D-N.Y., acting subcommittee chairman, who is considering legislation that would offer added benefits by tapping a $7.2 billion Labor Department fund for extended unemployment compensation or through additional employer taxes.

Congress extended unemployment benefits during economic troubles in 1975, 1980 and 1982.

Laid-off workers generally can receive up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, except in the states of Washington and Massachusetts, where the maximum is 30 weeks. But current law makes it difficult for states to pay an additional 13 weeks beyond the basic period, according to labor advocates.

"Unrealistic and unworkable triggers for extended benefits have the effect of denying benefits to most long-term unemployed workers," William Cunningham, legislative representative for the AFL-CIO, told the subcommittee. "Almost one-third of those who do get [unemployment] payments exhaust their benefits before they find a job."

In 1990, he said, there were 2.3 million jobless people who used up all their unemployment checks.

In Maryland, some 25 percent of the 68,538 people collecting unemployment benefits as of Jan. 26 are expected to see their benefits expire before they find work, said Kenneth E. Mannella, deputy director of the state's district office.

Mr. Downey's proposed legislation would ease those triggers and make extended benefits available sooner, according to Lawrence Spinelli, an aide to the congressman.

But Warren Blue of the Council of State Chambers of Commerce testified that making extended benefits more readily available would be "inappropriate" and would "add substantially to employer costs of maintaining and increasing employment."

And Mary Ann Wyrsch, director of the Labor Department's Unemployment Insurance Service, told the subcommittee that the extended benefits program already was working to combat "this mild recession."

Two states, Alaska and Rhode Island, will pay extended benefits this month and are expected to be joined in April by Puerto Rico and seven other states, although Maryland is not among them, she said later.

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