Loss of jobless benefits hitting area hard


PITTSFIELD -- A vote in the U.S. Senate last month to re-extend unemployment benefits for those jobless longer than 26 weeks failed, meaning millions of Americans have lost unemployment benefits since Congress failed to extend them in December. An estimated 3.8 million Americans have been jobless for longer than 26 weeks.

Approximately 1,000 Berkshire County residents automatically lost their benefits in December, when Congress failed to pass an extension of the benefits. In Massachusetts, the unemployed can receive benefits for up to 30 weeks. Before December, unemployment benefits lasted more than a year.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Labor released its February job reports, showing that 200,000 more people lost unemployment benefits in February, after being unemployed for longer than 26 weeks.

Carrieann Champagne, 46, of West Springfield, is among those who lost one of her last lifelines on Dec. 28, when her benefits were shut off as a result of the budget deal in Congress.

She had been out of work for about 11 months, after losing her customer service job. Her husband, David, a former truck mechanic, has been out of a job since 2010 due to a back injury.

Making matters worse, Champagne said David has been turned down for disability insurance. A message left with the Massachusetts Office on Disability was not returned.

They haven't received any food stamp benefits or Medicaid. Champagne said she has retained a lawyer.

"I was on a good salary. I got let go because of slow times," Champagne said. She said the couple have been drawing down on their savings since her benefits ran out. "We have a mortgage," she said.

She sends out an average of seven resumes a week and hasn't been able to find work. Three temporary employment agencies are trying to help her, and she has an interview coming up, which she is hopeful about.

Champagne is emotional about the ordeal. "I get upset when the system fails me," she said.

William Monterosso, the new executive director of BerkshireWorks in Pittsfield, which is supposed to help the unemployed find jobs, said "we don't see a lot of people who are coming in and saying the sky is falling because the extensions are over."

His organization has seen "a lot of people who have fallen off the extensions," he said. "We are going back to the old days" when benefits were limited to 30 weeks. "Once you're done, you're done," he said.

Monterosso, who was appointed by Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi to his position in January, said the unemployed were finding work "even though the economic environment isn't conducive to finding work."

Monterosso said the agency offered programs and workshops to help the unemployed increase their skills. Those who lose their benefits, "have a greater sense of urgency" of finding work, he said. "The lack of extensions haven't made an impact," he said. "There is ample enough time to increase your skills."

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., voted to extend unemployment benefits lasts month. Markey previously voted in favor of the budget deal in December which staved off potential cuts to defense, housing, and other departments in part by allowing the unemployment benefits to expire.

The vote in the Senate to extend those benefits failed after all but one Democrat voted in favor, and all but five Republicans voted against the law. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted against the legislation as a procedural move which allows the legislation to come up for a vote again.

Markey blamed Republicans for the bill's failure.

"By again turning their backs on Americans looking for work, Senate Republicans are going for the gold medal in cold-hearted obstructionism," Markey said in a released statement. "There are 60,000 people in Massachusetts who depend on this assistance to feed their families and heat their homes, even as they continue to look for jobs that are still hard to come by."

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., voted to extend benefits, though she voted to approve the budget deal in December.

"Thousands of families across Massachusetts are hanging on by their fingernails, trying to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads -- and yet Republicans have repeatedly voted to let them fall," Warren said in a prepared statement.

Giselle Barry, a spokesperson for Markey, said there has been no word on when the unemployment legislation will be re-introduced. "This is becoming a crisis" she said.

A message left with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was not returned.

Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, did not return messages seeking comment.

To reach Nathan Mayberg:
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