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Extending unemployment benefits only a temporary solution to bigger problem

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As reported on Thursday, December 18th by the Associated Press in ABC News, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid supports Congress extending emergency unemployment for the over 4 million individuals across the United States who exhausted their 26 weeks of state benefits. Reid stated that by January 7th that Congressional leaders are expected to vote about extending unemployment benefits for an additional three months. Reid (D-Nevada) is in favor of allocating additional money in the budget to allow long-term unemployed people a little more time to obtain employment. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)will consider the proposal but only if cuts are made in other areas in the budget. Previous news reports quoted $25 billion for a one-year extension of the federal jobless benefit. For this measure to move forward, Reid needs the support of at least five GOP votes of which he has at least one from co-sponsor Senator Dean Heller.

Originally signed into federal law in 2008 by former President George W. Bush, the federal emergency unemployment compensation provides an additional 37 weeks of unemployment benefits for long-term unemployed individuals. As it was reported in the Washington Post, what this means in practical terms is that 1.3 million people will no longer receive their bi-weekly unemployment checks and another 2.5 million people are expected to be cut as well by the end of December 2014. New applicants would continue to be eligible for up to 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits without any extensions. The House of Representatives voted last week to not extend the benefit. At this point, the Senate is the last hope for the over 4 billion individuals who have been relying on unemployment checks to pay their bills and meet their basic needs.

With an average amount of $300/week, the benefit is not a lot of money on which to subside. A family of four living on $1200/month would barely have enough money to pay their rent and purchase groceries let alone be able to afford basic utilities like heat and water. The easy solution is for the unemployed person to just go out an get another job which may not be as easy as it sounds. Taking into account that some individuals may be the only adult in the household responsible for supporting minor children, there may not be money to afford internet to job search or even gas to put in a car to travel to the local library for free computer access. A person receiving the average amount of unemployment compensation would not be able to afford babysitting for their children who are not school age. If they are fortunate, they may be eligible to receive additional benefits through the state such as food stamps and medical assistance to help them get by while they search for another job. The reality of the situation for many people who are out of work for a long period of time is that they become forgotten and lose hope of becoming self-sufficient without the buffer provided by the government.

U.S. State Representative Charlie Dent (R-PA15th District) wrote an opinion piece to the Patriot News acknowledging that there are problems with the current unemployment system that need to be fixed but believes that the federal unemployment program must continue at least for the short-term. Dent insists that there must be recovery plans to address a more long-term solution which includes creating job opportunities that pay competitive salaries which allows the average worker to be able to pay their bills. Dent believes that people receiving unemployment want to work for a living but want stability in a job that is not going to be here today and gone tomorrow. The reality is all too clear for people who have been out of work for six months or longer that getting a job that at least pays equivalent to what they receive on unemployment or more if they are fortunate is hard to come by in the current economic climate. It is easier to get another job when a person already has a job. The long-term unemployed worker may have the safety net of their unemployment check, but when that ends as it is expected to by the end of this month, they will compete for jobs with people who may have an advantage over them. The truth is that many employers do not want to hire someone who has been out of work for months at a time. Even if they lost their previous job of no fault of their own and are actively seeking work, a new employer may view them as washed up. It is unfair when the person receiving unemployment loses out on a job to a person who already has a job and puts food on their table.

In Pennsylvania, the Department of Labor and Industry requires that within 30 days of filing for unemployment benefits that individuals sign up for JobGateway which is a program through PA CareerLink to help displaced workers return to the workforce. Similar to job search websites such as Monster, CareerBuilder, and Indeed, JobGateway is a one-stop shop of sorts for people to post their resumes and search for jobs. The website tracks the number of days spent searching for jobs, the jobs that the person applied for positions, and lists recommended jobs based on the person's education, work experiences, and interests. A person who is computer savvy will be able to easily navigate around the JobGateway website while an individual with little to no experience using modern computer technology may be disadvantaged job searching on their own. Fortunately, there is help for the technologically disadvantaged person through staff at CareerLink who provide assistance in resume writing and other helpful career-focused workshops. The person who does not have a home computer can use the computers at CareerLink to search for jobs. The downside is that there is little help for displaced workers who already have an advanced education and a wealth of professional employment experience. Typically, those individuals are able to secure another job on their own in a shorter period of time.

In the short-term it is imperative that Congress extend the federal jobless benefit so that 4 billion people who are going to lose their unemployment benefits have additional time to find work. A long-term plan must be practical and feasible with the goal of helping the long-term unemployed to obtain work that will help them support themselves and their families without relying on federal and state benefits. One problem with the current unemployment system is that there is no enough focus placed on job retraining programs to help people obtain the job skills and training needed to obtain a job paying more than minimum wage. Another problem is that people who seek to return to school to get a degree are not eligible for unemployment. While it makes sense that the government does not provide unemployment benefits for a person who quit their job to go back to school. If the person's job was eliminated and the type of work they do is being phased out, it makes sense that they be permitted to enroll full time in a college or university and still be eligible for unemployment compensation. Pursuing a career change may be the only option for a displaced worker to find and keep stable employment in a different industry. Congress must act fast if they are going to extend unemployment which is only a temporary fix, but they must also develop more permanent solutions to this long-term festering wound.

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