New budget deal doesn't extend benefits for Valley jobless

The Fresno BeeDecember 12, 2013 

Nearly 20,000 people in the central and southern San Joaquin Valley stand to lose extended unemployment benefits under a two-year federal budget deal approved Thursday by the U.S. House of Representatives.

They are the long-term unemployed -- people who have been out of work for more than six months and who rely on federal benefits that run past the 26 weeks of payments provided by California's unemployment insurance program. An extension of the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program was not a part of the budget resolution.

Even before Thursday's vote, the state Employment Development Department was bracing for the potential loss of the EUC program. The agency last month sent notices to more than 222,000 Californians that they could lose the benefits after Dec. 28, even if they had not exhausted the benefits for which they had already qualified. That number includes 19,456 people in Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced and Tulare counties -- counties where a collective 145,630 people are counted toward official unemployment rates that range between 10% and 13%.

The House approved the two-year budget bill by a wide and bipartisan margin, voting 332-94. Among those voting no were 62 Republicans, including Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, whose district includes the mountain portions of Madera and Fresno counties.

The Valley's only Democrat in the House, Jim Costa of Fresno, and three other Republicans -- Devin Nunes of Visalia, David Valadao of Hanford and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield -- voted for the bill.

The EUC is an emergency program signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008, with the U.S. economy in recession, and continued by President Barack Obama in his two terms. It extended benefits on an emergency basis to the long-term unemployed. Most recently, the program was extended for another year as part of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, signed into law by Obama on Jan. 3, 2013.

Advocates had hoped to see an extension included in the latest budget agreement. The cost of a one-year extension to the EUC program was estimated at $25 billion.

But the budget compromise engineered by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, included no such provision.

California's regular unemployment program, which provides benefits topping out at $450 weekly for up to 26 weeks, is not affected by Thursday's vote. The U.S. Senate is expected to take up the budget agreement next week.

McClintock said he believed extending the federal unemployment program "is counterproductive and hurts the unemployed" because it "reduces the incentive they have to get into the work force."

"I understand this is desperately needed relief for those who are unemployed," McClintock added. "But the only antidote for their nightmare is a job."

McClintock said there are "myriad social programs to ensure basic sustenance" for the unemployed.

But for many of the long-term unemployed in McClintock's district and the rest of the Valley, finding a job is easier said than done, said Blake Konczal, executive director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board.

"There is an insufficient supply of open jobs for the number of people who are unemployed," Konczal said Thursday. "It's just not the case here, as it might be in a more populous area or where there is a more diverse array of industries, where it's a matter of finding the right job."

"If every open job in Fresno was filled, we'd still have a lot of unemployed people," Konczal added. "It's not exclusively a question of volition or gumption on the part of the job seeker. In some cases it's a question of their skill set. ... The answer is not to cut future unemployment benefits, but to tie them to some sort of worker retraining."

Unemployment rates in the Valley have historically run several percentage points higher than the state or national average. California's unemployment rate in October was 8.7%, while the U.S. rate was 7.3%.

Costa was among 158 representatives who signed a letter Wednesday to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in an unsuccessful bid to bring a one-year extension of the EUC program to the House floor for a vote.

"Here in the Valley, economic recovery has been slower than in many other parts of the nation, and many are now facing greater uncertainty about how to make ends meet during the time of year they should be able to focus on their families and their blessings," Costa said. "As Congress heads home to celebrate the holidays, my Republican friends should be ashamed that they left without holding a vote to maintain a lifeline to families in need."

Other Democrats joined Costa throughout the afternoon of debate in slamming the Ryan-Murray budget deal for not extending the unemployment program -- even as all but 32 of them voted for the bill.

Other Republicans from the Valley avoided questions about the unemployment extension.

"While this budget agreement is not perfect, it is a step in the right direction," Valadao said. "The deal responsibly reduces our national debt without increasing taxes on America's middle class."

"Congress must now come together to enact policies that continue to strengthen our economy and ensure every American has the opportunity to find work," he added. But Valadao's staff did not respond to an inquiry about how the lack of an extension would affect about 950 Kings County residents who have gone for six months or more without finding a job.

In Tulare County, Nunes' stomping ground, there are almost 26,000 unemployed, including 3,256 long-term unemployed who receive the extended federal benefits. Nunes spokesman Jack Langer said the budget agreement "had nothing to do with unemployment insurance."

"We would have liked to see Obamacare repealed in this bill," Langer added, "but that also had nothing to do with a budget agreement."

Maurice Emsellem, an Oakland-based program director for the National Employment Law Program, declared it "shameful" that the House leadership would not allow a vote to include the extension in the Ryan-Murray bill.

"The amazing thing is that they did not take a vote," Emsellem said. "They walked away without even taking a direct position on the extension. When you have 1.3 million workers and their families who rely on those benefits to put food on the table, it's inexcusable and shameful."

Emsellem said NELP, an employment advocacy group, will now focus its efforts on getting an extension of the EUC benefits into either a stand-alone bill or a broader omnibus budget bill when the House returns after the Christmas holiday.

"This is definitely not over," he said. "They're going to hear from people back home. They're going to feel the pressure to come back and vote on this issue."

Stopping short

Number of people warned about the potential loss of federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation extended benefits:

Fresno County: 7,108

Kern County: 5,279

Kings County: 952

Madera County: 922

Merced County: 1,939

Tulare County: 3,256

Source: California Employment Development Department

The Bee Washington Bureau and Associated Press contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, or @tsheehan on Twitter.

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