PITTSFIELD -- A budget deal announced this week by House Republicans and Democratic Senate leaders may help keep the government funded for the next two years -- but it also may take a toll on the long-term unemployed.
The deal, which both houses are expected to vote on Friday before leaving on holiday break, did not include an extension for unemployment benefits to those who have been receiving them longer than 26 weeks.
"This will cause irreparable harm to people," said John Barrett III, director of Berkshire Works Career Center in Pittsfield, which helps people sign up for unemployment benefits. "It's going to hurt a lot of people."
Unless further action is taken, an estimated 1.3 million people will lose their unemployment insurance after Dec. 28, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That figure would climb to more than 2 million by March.
The agreement has been billed as a way to avoid future federal budget crises by cutting Medicare, raising pension contributions for federal employees, limiting cost of living increases to military retirees under 62 and doubling airplane ticket security fees. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., made the announcement Tuesday.
There were 4,722 people officially listed as unemployed in Berkshire County by the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development for the month of October. The number of those receiving benefits for more than 26 weeks was not immediately available. The unemployment rate doesn't include those who have exhausted their unemployment benefits or who have dropped out of the labor pool.
"We think it is heartless and craven for Congress to go on vacation" without extending unemployment insurance, said Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator of the National Unemployment Law Project. "The economy is hurting these people the hardest," she said.
The average weekly unemployment benefit in Massachusetts is $431, according to state provided figures. Last month, Congress reduced food stamp benefits.
In a prepared statement, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., described the failure by Congress to extend unemployment benefits as "unfortunate," while "corporate tax loopholes and billions in subsidies for oil companies remain on the books. These jobless benefits make an important difference to unemployed workers and their families in Massachusetts and around the country."
However, Markey also said the budget agreement was a "a good first step by limiting devastating sequestration cuts and putting in place a more reasonable level of funding."
U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, signed onto a letter urging House Speaker John Boehner to extend un employment benefits, but was unavailable for comment on Wednesday.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren could not be reached for comment.
"The economy is not in the position where a lot of those people will be able to find jobs," Barrett said. "It's going to cause some problems."
The economy has picked up, but "there hasn't been a lot of movement in the county," Barrett said. There have been layoffs in the manufacturing center, though he said there are a lot of job openings out there, depending on one's skills.
Presently, those out of work receive unemployment insurance benefits up to 63 weeks in Massachusetts.
Without new legislation, 30 weeks will be the limit.
"Think of all of the people who will be cut off and won't have money for their heating bills," Conti said. "It's brutal."
"Now, to be hit right after Christmas," Barrett said. "It's going to cause havoc."
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