Federal Extensions of Unemployment Insurance Benefits Authorized—But Shortened—for Unemployed Californians

Late last month, Congress and President Obama extended federal unemployment insurance (UI) benefits, previously set to expire at the end of this month, through the end of February 2012. While the renewal of federal UI is a tremendous relief to the approximately 1.1 million Californians who depend on these benefits to survive while looking for work, the bill does not go far enough to address unemployed workers’ needs.

Currently, California provides UI benefits for 26 weeks, and the federal extension provides up to an additional 73 weeks of benefits, for a total maximum of 99 weeks, through four separate extension tiers and an additional extension because of the state’s high unemployment rate (known as Fed-ED). This renewal of federal UI benefits for the next 10 months comes with a price: it gradually reduces the total number of weeks unemployed Californians will be able to receive UI benefits in the coming year. The bill provides a potential maximum of 99 benefit weeks through August 2012 and 93 benefit weeks through December 2012 (assuming California’s unemployment rate remains high and Californians will continue to be able to file Fed-ED extensions). The last effective date that Californians can file an initial extension or move to the next tier is December 23, 2012; the Fed-ED extension, available after all tiers have been exhausted, has a filing deadline of December 30, 2012.

What does all this mean? Well, assuming all eligibility requirements are met, anyone in California who has been collecting UI since approximately June 2011 could still collect all 99 weeks of benefits. But, starting this week, a Californian who begins a UI claim now could only collect 26 weeks of benefits and an additional 20 weeks under the first tier of the federal extension. Then it gets even worse: a Californian who starts a UI claim after July will not be able to collect more than 26 weeks of benefits because all of the extensions will have expired by then.

Although the gradual reduction of weeks will avoid the shock of an abrupt cut, unemployed workers are more likely than before to exhaust their UI benefits before securing new employment due to the abbreviated timeline. The shortened supply of benefits is especially worrisome because in recent years the median number of weeks workers are unemployed has doubled, with a large number of workers spending more than a year searching for work. Approximately half of Californians collecting UI are using the federal extensions. Going forward, those federal extensions will gradually become unavailable to people who become unemployed, adding more people to the 625,000 unemployed workers in California who have already run out of all available benefits, having exhausted the 99 week maximum. Unemployed workers are ultimately left to hope that the economic recovery is sustained, job growth continues, and they are able to find a job before their benefits run out. The clock is ticking.

UI benefits, available to workers who were separated from their last jobs through no fault of their own, remain as critical now as they have ever been. At Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center, we are working to ensure that all workers can access UI benefits when they need them. Roughly half of callers to our nightly Workers’ Rights Clinics have questions about their rights to UI benefits; our Claims Project is representing more clients at UI appeal hearings than ever before. Many think of UI benefits as a safety net, but for most of our clients, they are a life line. UI benefits—ranging between $40 and $450 a week, with an average weekly benefit amount of $292 in California—are the difference between being able to pay rent and becoming homeless; being able to put food on the table and going hungry, being able to make ends meet and crossing the poverty threshold.

For answers to how the new federal extension may affect your claim for UI benefits, call our Workers’ Rights Clinic at 866.864.8208.

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