Senators Reach Bipartisan Agreement on Federal Unemployment Benefits
Fate of the Federal Lifeline for Long-term Job-seekers Still Uncertain
Ten U.S. Senators announced today that they have reached a deal for restoring federal unemployment benefits for about 2 million people who have lost those benefits since the end of 2013. The compromise would extend the expired program through the end of May, and would make the restored benefits retroactive to the beginning of the year. That would be very welcome new for many jobless workers and their families who are struggling with one of the harshest winters in decades.
The deal appears to have at least 60 votes, which would make it immune from the filibusters that have stymied other efforts in the Senate to restore the federal lifeline for the long-term unemployed. Although the prospects for passage in the Senate now look very good, its chances in the House are unclear. Some House conservatives quickly condemned the bill today.
As I noted in a blog post earlier this week, there are now almost 40,000 Wisconsin job-seekers who have lost their federal EUC benefits since the end of December, and that figure is growing by about 1,600 per week.
The new proposal would boost the economy and provide relief for more than 2 million jobless Americans. The deal was announced by 5 Republican Senators and 5 Democrats, led by Jack Reed (D-RI) and Dean Heller (R-NV). The compromise bill is also cosponsored by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Rob Portman (R-OH), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Dick Durbin (D-IL).
The new bill is fully paid-for by a combination of offsets, including extending customs fees through 2024, and extending “pension smoothing” provisions from the 2012 highway bill, which were set to phase out this year. Part of the compromise is that the proposal contains language championed by Senator Collins to strengthen reemployment and eligibility assessment (REA) and ReEmployment Services (RES) programs.
One argument made today against the deal is that the federal benefits were only supposed to be in place until the unemployment rate came down. That reasoning misses the point that the program helps the long-term unemployed, and the jobless rate for that group of job-seekers remains at an extremely high level. Opponents of restoring the federal unemployment benefits have also argued on many occasions that allowing it to expire would cause more long-term unemployed to find jobs. However, the empirical evidence shows the number of long-term unemployed workers jumped in February, rather than declining.
In other news today, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate fell to 6.1% in January, but the preliminary numbers show no increase in private sector jobs. As in many previous months, the improvement in the unemployment rate seems to be driven primarily by people leaving the workforce, not by healthy job growth. That ongoing trend provides little or no relief to the long-term unemployed, whose suffering has been exacerbated by elimination of the federal benefits.