For up to 45,000 Marylanders whose unemployment benefits have run out since March 1, the checks will be in the mail before Thanksgiving, state officials promise.
The emergency federal law enacted Friday gives jobless Marylanders who have exhausted their basic 26 weeks of benefits an extra 13 weeks of payments.
To qualify, recipients have to be unemployed and have exhausted the basic 26 weeks of payments. The state Office of Unemployment Insurance is notifying by mail about 45,000 persons whose benefits expired; about half of them may qualify, the agency predicts.
Applicants should not phone or visit unemployment offices, but handle their extended claims by mail, the state agency advised.
"With an 8-year-old and Christmas coming, it's going to be very important for me," said Earline Howard. Her 26 weeks ran out in July, and she has been unable to find work, getting by with help from friends and family.
"I'm a working person, and I've always been able to find something until this time -- now I can't even get work from the temporary agency," she said.
She is not alone. By the time the program ends July 4, the measure could mean $100 million in extra benefits for as many as 40,000 unemployed Marylanders, the state estimates.
"I think it's heavenly, not just for me but for everyone," said Jacqueline Newman, a Baltimore office worker who has been unemployed since the first of this year and building up a thick file of job rejection letters.
Although she is single and living with her mother, Ms. Newman said she has fallen further behind in paying her bills because of the lack of work and the loss of unemployment insurance benefits. "Maybe I can finally breathe a little and pay something toward these bills."
For Robert L. Simpson, who has lost two jobs in the past two years and ran out of benefits in September, the extension comes too late. Hisfamily has separated to qualify the three school-age children for public assistance, and he is selling the furniture to rent his house and keep up with the mortgage.
"It's long overdue, but it's not going to help me much, because it's only a temporary thing," said Mr. Simpson, who testified before Congress for the extended benefits this summer and then ran for City Council on a full employment platform.
"Unemployment benefits are not the answer -- we need economic development and more jobs to get people back to work," he said.
In the past two months, an average of 5,000 people in Maryland exhausted their basic benefits, twice as many as a year ago, noted Charles O.Middlebrooks of the state employment development department. The peak came in July, when 7,400 jobless people ran out of benefits without finding new work.
"Some of them may have gotten new jobs or they may have qualified for new state [26-week] benefits," he noted. "We'll just have to see how many would be eligible [for extended benefits]."
Al Kerntky, who has spent three months on unemployment from a construction job in Baltimore County, is one of those who feels fortunate he will not qualify.
"This is great news. There are a lot of people out there who could use it," he said. "But I'm expecting to get a job in a factory soon, and I hope I don't have to use it."
The $5.3 billion federal program is expected to provide extra weeks of unemployment checks for nearly 3 million jobless people in the United States who exhaust their standard benefits through next July 4.
States get six, 13 or 20 extra weeks of benefits. The number of extra weeks that each state will qualify for will vary monthly as unemployment statistics change.
Maryland now qualifies for 13 weeks of extra benefits under a formula that considers both the six-month adjusted unemployment rate and the rate of claimants exhausting their 26-week standard benefits.
Almost 35 percent of claimants in Maryland have used up their benefits, compared with a normal rate of about 20 percent, Mr. Middlebrooks said, while the adjusted unemployment rate is 3.7 percent. (Maryland's unadjusted jobless rate for September was 5.2 percent.)
Weekly unemployment benefits in Maryland average $180, with a maximum of $223 reached by those earning above $21,000 a year. Benefits are calculated on earnings over the previous 15 months.
News of the unemployment aid agreement, approved after President Bush killed two similar bills, was closely followed by those who have been unable to find work for more than six months. Yvette Green, a jobless clerical employee in Landover, listened to the news of the Washington struggle over the bill's details. "I wasn't sure it was going to happen, but I'm glad there will finally be something," she said.
"The president should get out and see how hard it is to find a job these days."
She lost her job with an insurance company when the office was relocated in Hagerstown; her unemployment benefits ended in April. "Times are difficult, but I haven't given up hope. Maybe this will be a sign of change," she said.
According to the latest count, 46,489 Marylanders are collecting unemployment benefits. Typically, that number has represented only one-third of those actually out of work.