For 1,028 Yakima County residents, it will be like finding a lump of coal in their Christmas stockings.
Three days after Christmas, long-term unemployment benefits will end for 1.3 million Americans, including those in Yakima County and 25,000 statewide.
When Congress finally approved a federal budget last week, it didn’t include a provision to extend the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which pays unemployment benefits to people who have been out of work for more than six months. The period of unemployment doesn’t have to be consecutive, which means someone could work a seasonal job, get laid off and refile for the benefits.
Currently, up to 63 weeks of unemployment benefits are available here, including 26 weeks of regular state benefits followed by 37 weeks of federal emergency unemployment compensation. But, after Dec. 28, the emergency benefits will no longer be available, which means anyone out of work longer than six months won’t get anything more.
That’s going to be a blow, say two Yakima residents currently receiving long-term benefits.
“This will make it harder for my wife and me to get by,” said Randy Frank, 54, who was laid off from his regular job five years ago. The benefits “help me continue to look for work and helps with the mortgage.”
“I’ve already cut a lot of things,” said Rebecca Flynn, 44, who has gone back to school full time after leaving her job with an injured neck in 2012. “I put money into the system for 20 years, and now I’m in need. The money is helping me to be a productive person again.”
Since it began in 2008, the long-term program has paid about $6.3 billion in federally funded unemployment benefits to more than 452,000 jobless workers in Washington, according to the state Employment Security Department. The average weekly compensation in October (the last month available) was $405.
In the past five years, Congress renewed the program 11 times, but there’s currently no indication it will be reauthorized again.
“Increasingly, it looks like it’s a political fight whether to renew it or not,” said Sheryl Hutchison with the Employment Security Department in Olympia. “There’s a certain movement afoot to extend, but I don’t think it will happen by Dec. 28, if at all.”
Representatives of Rep. Doc Hastings’ office did not respond to requests for comment on the Pasco Republican’s position on saving the benefits.
Those pushing a plan to extend benefits, mostly a group of Democratic lawmakers, call them an urgent financial lifeline. Opponents counter that not only does an extension increase the federal deficit, it also discourages people from seeking work.
But Frank disputes that, saying he’s continually looking for work.
“Most certainly I want to work full time,” he said. “Am I lying on my backside because I have (unemployment)? No.”
Frank, who receives emergency benefits of $140 a week, has worked seasonal jobs in the past five years, most recently packing pears in a fruit warehouse until production stopped in November. He currently works 10 hours a week at his church, Ahtanum Pioneer, doing janitorial chores. Last summer he mowed lawns.
An 11-year veteran of the Coast Guard, he also worked 11 years for a company in Yakima that built archery bows before his lay off. The company, Howatt Archery, ultimately left Yakima in 2010.
Frank and his wife, Shawna, have been relying on his unemployment benefits and income from her job at a packaging company to continue to live in their home. They’re considering reducing their phone service but aren’t sure what to excise from their budget after that.
“We haven’t taken a vacation in more than five years,” he said. “We have family on the west side of the state, and we don’t visit because of the cost of fuel. That’s hard.”
Reducing spending is particularly difficult when all that’s left to cut is the basics, Flynn agreed. “It’s pretty simple. I pay rent, the power bill and car insurance. I don’t have cable, and we don’t go out to eat.”
What she misses most, she said, is grabbing her 7-year-old son, Zion, and saying “Let’s go the movies or go bowling.”
“But,” she adds, “I’m thankful for what I have.”
A single mother, she receives $427 a week in unemployment benefits. She also receives food stamps and gets additional staples from a food bank.
“I’m appreciative that there are resources when you’re in need,” Flynn said. “I use them, but I don’t abuse them.”
Last June, she enrolled in the business technology accounting program at Perry Technical Institute. Previously she had worked as a caregiver for people with disabilities for 17 years at an agency affiliated with the Department of Social and Health Services. She was able to pursue training at Perry with financial help through programs administered by the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and the Employment Security Division. She also has loans and a scholarship.
After she graduates in December 2014, she said her ideal job would be to return to the state agency where she had worked and apply her new computer and typing skills in an office setting.
Frank, too, said he would like to go back to doing what he once did. “I love working with my hands — manufactured wood, metal fabrication, welding. I even like janitorial and landscaping. Whatever comes available would be great.”
Flynn thinks eliminating emergency unemployment benefits is short-sighted.
“If someone is making herself better and working toward employment and in school, they (benefits) should be reinstated,” she said. “I’ve spent a lot of time to make sure I’ll be really successful, and I want people to be proud of what I’ve turned into.”
In her view, it isn’t just the individual who is helped by the extra money. “What flows in, flows out.”
Hutchison concurred. “There’s going to be a pretty dramatic, immediate effect from the expiration. This program sustains a community through a recession. People who get benefits pay rent and buy groceries. It’s not just a loss for individuals and families.”
• Jane Gargas can be reached at 509-577-7690 or firstname.lastname@example.org.