Give the jobless aid they're due

January 02, 2003|By Cassandra Bridgeforth

WHEN THE new Congress convenes Tuesday, President Bush and congressional leaders will have a chance to make up for their hard-hearted failure to extend unemployment benefits before the Christmas holiday break.

Apparently, they have figured out that cutting off benefits for about 780,000 jobless people, including about 10,000 Marylanders, three days after Christmas is not the smartest public relations move. I hope that when they return from vacation they will focus more on addressing the needs of the unemployed than on their need to avoid bad press.

Mr. Bush spoke only about the 780,000 workers whose benefits were prematurely terminated Saturday. Sure, 780,000 very angry people are a political problem for the White House, but Saturday's cutoff was only a small part of the problem.

A much bigger one is that 1 million Americans have exhausted their federal unemployment benefits and still can't find a job. Mr. Bush didn't say anything about them, and neither have congressional leaders. Are they planning to provide additional benefits for people who already ran out of benefits before Saturday?

And what about all of the people who will need benefits this year? There will be an estimated 95,000 people, including about 900 in Maryland, who will run out of benefits every week who will have nowhere else to go unless Congress acts. President Bush and congressional leaders aren't saying anything about how long they're going to extend the program. Democrats were calling for 13 more weeks of federal jobless aid.

In today's economy, layoffs are different from those in the past.

Then, a worker would be dismissed in a downturn and be called back to the same job when the situation improved.

Today, workers are often permanently displaced after a lifetime of steady and well-compensated employment, affecting entire industries. This means a worker must retrain. It's impossible to do this during six months of unemployment. It often takes up to five months to receive funds from programs put in place for this purpose.

Unemployment benefits help families pay the bills while a breadwinner looks for work. When families spend their benefit money in our communities, it strengthens the overall economy. Without benefits to help families keep their homes and pay for groceries, laid-off workers cut back severely on spending and funnel less money into an already sluggish economy.

I lost my job in May after 15 years in the telecommunications industry. Industry analysts predicted last year that it will take five years for the industry to bounce back, but I can't afford to wait.

I live on a fraction of my previous income but have the same financial obligations. The stock and 401(k) savings I thought I had for my retirement are decimated.

I need three more months of help to finish retraining in my new field so I will be employable again. The next job I have must not only support my family and me but also replace savings for my retirement. Basically, I'm forced to start over again in my 50s.

Workers like me are not looking for handouts. We've worked hard and we've earned the right to receive unemployment benefits during hard times. That's what unemployment insurance is all about - like health and car insurance, it's meant to be there when you need it.

President Bush and congressional leaders need to recognize that the problem is not them getting bad press. The problem is long-term unemployment.

Cassandra Bridgeforth, who is affected by the unemployment aid cutoff, is a former employee of Verizon and Lucent Technologies and is retraining as a Web server administrator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She lives in Baltimore City.

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