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Jobless benefit provided financial safety net but little help to find employment

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Absent any intervention from Congress, emergency unemployment compensation expired on Saturday, December 28, 2013. According to the Associated Press as reported by MSN News, over 1.3 million people across the nation lost their federal jobless benefit today. The federal program which has been in existence since 2008 has been extended every year since its inception. Put into place to help individuals who exhausted their 26 weeks of state unemployment, the benefit was instituted to assist the long-term unemployed get by until they found another job. Because lawmakers were unable to come to an agreement about extending the benefit, the program that provided the average person about $1,166 a month to live on expired while Congress and the President are recessing for their holiday break.

Pennsylvania is one of the states to be hit the hardest by the loss of jobless benefits. PennLive quoted a figure of 10,810 people who are expected to lose their benefits across Central Pennsylvania. Of the nine counties listed in the article, three have the highest number of people hit by the loss of benefits: Berks County at 2,320; Lancaster County at 2,080; and York County at 2,100. Although the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 extended the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program to January 1, 2014, that does not include additional benefit weeks. In other words, people who are eligible for state unemployment will continue to receive their bi-weekly payment until they reach week 26 which means that in a few more months round two will hit. Unless Congressional leaders come to some kind of deal to extend EUC, it was projected by the National Employment Law Project that in three months that another 850,000 people across the country will be affected by the program cuts.

Of course, the simple solution thrown out is for the unemployed to just go out and get a job- any job will do. If the average person receives about $1,200 a month from unemployment, that means that they need to earn at least $12.50 an hour to bring in what they received through the jobless benefit. If the person was receiving additional assistance such as food stamps or reduced fee lunches for their children, the amount they must earn per hour to compensate would need to increase. Factoring in additional benefits, it might be that the average person now needs to obtain a job that pays at least $15.00 per hour. Depending upon where the person lives, the type of employment they seek, their level of education and experience, it may be a difficult task to obtain one job that will pay the person what they need to meet their basic needs.

The reality of the situation is that the longer a person remains unemployed the more challenging it will be for them to find a new job. Almost a year ago, The New York Times went out and interviewed some people who were unemployed for more than six months. What they discovered was that not having a job was keeping people back from getting a new job. Even if they lost their job due to no fault of their own such as company downsizing, people found that employers were not hiring them. Considering many employers require applicants complete a job application online along with submitting their resume, there is no way to hide it if the person’s last date of employment was a nine months ago. The Washington Post reported that many employers are unwilling to even look at the resume of a person who has been out of work for six months or more. News reports show that unemployment numbers continue to either be holding constant or to be decreasing. Job search sites show that there are employers out there recruiting employees to fill open positions which would sounds encouraging for the long-term unemployed if only they could get someone to look at their resume.

With the abundance of jobs one might wonder why the long-term unemployed person did not find a job within months of becoming unemployed. There are a number of reasons. Maybe they worked in an industry that phased out and their trade is not being actively sought by employers. It could be that they need additional job training or skills development to get a job in their field. It is possible that they are not technologically savvy enough to use a computer to even conduct a job search online or know how to use word processing software to update their resume. Harvard Business Review found that employees lacking computer skills and being able to use modern technology is the major reason why they are unable to find qualified employees to do the type of jobs for which they are hiring. To bring the type of people they need to fill these positions, 75% of U.S. CEOs believe that training is the answer to getting the country out of the recession. Outside of maybe a Fortune 500 company, these CEOs say that the partnership with the government is the solution to getting the country out of the recession. A poll found that 57% of the CEOs believed that “creating and fostering a skilled workforce should be a top priority of governments”. A number of jobs require that the employee be skilled at using a laptop, smart phone, and various computer programs. Even if they do have prior job experience, a recently laid off person who is not familiar with any of those devices could easily find themselves coming up empty in job searching if they do not meet the minimum skills and training for the job. As a result, they remain on unemployment struggling to get by maybe on that $1,166 a month and hoping to find a job that will take them.

If all it takes is a little education and training to find a job, why not use one’s time on unemployment to go back to school to earn a degree in a field that will help the unemployed person find a job in their industry? The person who only has a high school diploma could use their 26 weeks of state unemployment and additional weeks through EUC to pay their bills while they take classes at their local community college or a university. If college is not their thing, they could enroll in a trade school program or take a job skills workshop to help them to be more competitive in the job market. Enrolling at an institution of higher learning is not as easy-peasy as it sounds on paper. Assuming they are accepted into their program of study, a series of steps must be taken before the person even begins their first class. Over the course of 26 weeks, the person may have spent half that time searching and applying for jobs. When the reality sits in that they are not going to find a job without getting additional training or obtaining a degree, the clock is ticking on their state unemployment benefit.

It is imperative that Congress act to remedy the situation. Providing emergency unemployment compensation to the long-term unemployed was a temporary solution created in Washington, D.C. to a much bigger problem. For five years the benefit was extended, the government cannot simply cut the recipients off at the knees and expect them to just go out and get a job. They have been trying to do just that obviously without success. A solution to fix the problem is to get to the heart of the matter. People who are unemployed need resources besides what is provided through filing their bi-weekly claim. Claimants are required to conduct an active job search through JobGateway where they can post their resume, search for jobs and complete job applications. JobGateway does a handy job of keeping track of the number of days the person searched for a job and how many jobs they applied for which meets the requirements for the active work search to receive unemployment benefits. For a person who is already computer savvy and experienced with modern technology, they will have little problems navigating around the website. This is the person who is more likely to find a job either through this website or through searching on their own through other job sites.

On the other hand, the person who is attempting a career change or wants to obtain additional education needed to compete in the job market will not receive much help through CareerLink programs. Unemployment does not pay for job training or retraining while the person is receiving benefits. Naturally, there are grants and loans that a person can take out to cover the cost of tuition to return to school, but a person cannot enroll in a college or university as a full time student and receive unemployment compensation. Sure, there are exceptions to every rule as outlined on the Department of Labor & Industry’s FAQ page. For instance, if a person wants to look for an approved training program through CareerLink in Cumberland County, there is a list of programs along with the cost to attend. Just the same, it is a catch -22 as a person cannot receive unemployment without fulfilling to active work requirement and may not be able to get a job earning what they receive through unemployment without returning to school. Houston, we have a problem! A typical government response will be to simply extend EUC which is just a quick-fix and not that dissimilar from the welfare state. A more proactive response would be to extend EUC while requiring the states to create a system that helps people to return to the workforce through education and job training programs.

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