Emergency unemployment benefits will expire Saturday for more than 25,000 out-of-work Marylanders, with thousands more projected to run out in the first half of next year unless Congress decides to reverse course and approve an extension.
Wenetha Leslie, a 32-year-old mother from Lauraville, will be among the casualties if she can't find a job in the coming weeks.
"It's traumatic and it's heart-wrenching, not knowing how you're going to support your family," said Leslie, who's been out of work since June and looking for opportunities to work with at-risk children and teens. Her benefits will end soon after New Year's Day.
Before Congress allowed the extended benefits to expire, individuals who lost their jobs in Maryland could collect unemployment checks for nearly 16 months, including 26 weeks of state benefits followed by 37 weeks of federal payments.
The checks for those who have exhausted their 26-week state benefits will stop immediately. And over the next six months, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates, another 28,500 Marylanders will run out of their state benefits.
Some members of Congress have called for the extended benefits to end, noting that 41/2 have passed since the recession officially ended. Others say the extended help is still necessary because jobs are scarce — one opening for every three unemployed workers — and long-term unemployment remains high nationally.
Nationwide, 1.3 million people will lose their extended benefits on Saturday. By late 2014, another 3.6 million Americans will have exhausted their jobless insurance.
Nearly two-fifths of unemployed U.S. workers have been without a job for at least 27 weeks, which except for the past few years is the highest figure since records were first kept in the late 1940s.
"We have a huge reservoir of unemployed people compared to the available number of jobs, and that's why we have so many people who are long-term unemployed," said Maurice Emsellem, program director at the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for workers and unemployed Americans.
"They're stretched to the limit," he said. "In most cases, the benefits are really what's holding them together — paying the bills, putting food on the table."
The average benefit in Maryland is $313 a week, Emsellem said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he will bring a bill to the floor the week of Jan. 6 to extend the benefits, but he has indicated that the cost would not be offset by other cuts, so likelihood of passage remains unclear.
Many Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, have expressed a willingness to extend the benefits as long as the cost is offset by spending cuts. Continuing the benefits for a year would cost about $25 billion — though many of the proposals in play are for less than a year.
Fifty-five percent of Americans want Congress to let the benefits continue, compared with 34 percent in favor of a cutoff, according to survey results released Thursday by the National Employment Law Project. More than 800 voters were polled.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress both agreed to pass a bipartisan budget agreement this month that did not include the extension of long-term benefits, but it is Democrats who are now pushing aggressively to extend the federal unemployment program when lawmakers return to Washington in January.
"Congress has always made protecting the unemployed a priority, and we cannot leave them behind and forgotten now," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who called on House Republicans to bring an extension to the floor for a vote. "Americans still struggling to find employment deserve better from their leaders."
President Barack Obama and U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez have also called on Congress to pass an extension early next month, and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake echoed their urgency.
"It is my hope that Congress will retroactively extend these benefits to the long-term unemployed when it reconvenes in January; however, we know we can't count on that," Rawlings-Blake said Friday. "For anyone in our city who is struggling to find work and is impacted by what is going on in Washington, I urge you to reach out to us for help."
More than 5,000 of the city's long-term unemployed are expected to lose their benefits Saturday.
The mayor called a news conference at My Brother's Keeper in Irvington to highlight the city's workforce development resources. The organization hosts one of the city's five community job hubs, in addition to Baltimore's three one-stop career centers.
The programs help more than 20,000 city residents a year with customized job search assistance, interviewing skills, resume writing, career counseling and computer literacy, Rawlings-Blake said. The public also can use the centers to connect to job training opportunities.