PITTSFIELD -- It's been more than a month since unemployment benefits expired for the long-term jobless, cutting a critical safety net for more than 1,000 Berkshire County residents.
And while Congress currently is debating a bill to extend benefits for the long-term jobless, it's of little solace to more than 1.6 million Americans who are estimated to have already lost them since Dec. 28.
"Nationwide, you've got 72,000 people who are losing their unemployment insurance every week on top of 1.3 million people who lost it on December 28," said U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield. "Economic recovery remains tepid. Demand remains slow."
Neal thinks that President Barack Obama's State of the Union address tonight will be an opportunity for the president to "make his case for extending unemployment insurance," he said.
House Republicans and Senate Democrats forged a budget deal in December that let the benefits expire for those who have received 30 weeks of unemployment insurance in exchange for staving off billions of dollars in automatic budget cuts to defense, Head Start, public housing, the energy department and other government agencies -- a policy known as sequestration.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., vowed that extending unemployment benefits would be at the top of the agenda for Congress when it returned to session earlier this month. While a bipartisan bill is on the floor, the two parties have been unable to bridge their differences.
"Nothing right now," said Giselle Barry, a spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. Markey supports the extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, though he voted for the budget deal last month.
Barry blamed Republicans in the House who want to pay for extending unemployment benefits with other budget cuts, for holding up a deal. "The longer we wait, the longer people are falling off the program. There is an urgency."
Neal, who also supported the December budget deal, blamed procedural hurdles put up by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for delaying the bill.
"I think it's pretty obvious that it's stalled." he said.
Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that McConnell offered to extend unemployment benefits by delaying a requirement for Americans to purchase health insurance under Obamacare.
If Congress fails to act, there is little movement in the state Legislature to pick up the slack.
A bill to increase the minimum wage from $8 to $11 in Massachusetts passed the state Senate last December and is expected to be taken up in the House amid talk of possibly lowering the duration of unemployment benefits, from 30 weeks to 26,
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, said he opposes such a proposal. "They are two separate issues," he said.
"Right now, if you are working for minimum wage, you live well below poverty," he said. With a wage increase, Downing said, "if you are out there working hard by the rules, you (will) get a fair day's pay for it."
Downing said poverty has increased in Massachusetts over the past six years.
"I would rather not decrease the benefits," said state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams.
State Rep. William Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said legislators aren't talking about changing benefits but are looking at reducing unemployment costs for businesses, which pay for the program. He is looking forward to Gov. Deval Patrick's State of the State speech tonight for new proposals.
"I field calls every day of the week from folks frustrated by the online and phone system (for unemployment benefits)," he said.
It can take six to eight weeks for some to receive unemployment benefits from the time they sign up, he said. The state underwent a massive, $46 million overhaul of its unemployment system to a Web-based application last summer, which has caused numerous problems.
"We need to be proactive to find these folks new jobs," Pignatelli said. "We need case managers."
"A minimum wage is only good for people who have a job," he said. "There certainly is a commitment to raise the minimum wage but to what point is anybody's guess," Pignatelli said.
"The bigger story is people who are working and still in poverty," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield. "In general, things are getting better (economically) but for somebody without a job it isn't better."
Downing said doing more to help the long-term unemployed is "something we've talked about." He is hopeful Congress will extend benefits again but he is worried they will do "what they have done all too often, which is nothing."
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., issued a statement saying "I'm appalled that Republicans have repeatedly filibustered an extension of emergency unemployment benefits for Massachusetts families who are struggling to make ends meet during tough economic times. This is just wrong. I'm going to keep fighting in the Senate to extend this critical lifeline -- it is the right thing to do for our families and will help strengthen our economy."
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