Thousands of Alaskans to Lose Unemployment Benefits Saturday

About 6,500 Alaskans will see their emergency unemployment benefits come to an end on Saturday, according to the state Department of Labor.

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The federal program was enacted by Congress in 2008 at the beginning of the recession, which is still affecting the economy in certain states. In the past five and a half years, it has been extended nearly a dozen times.

The idea was to provide an additional safety net for the long term unemployed, beyond the 26 weeks of regular state unemployment benefits.

“Tiers were added to it to allow more benefits, and then it was reduced,” says Bill Kramer, chief of Unemployment Insurance for the State of Alaska.

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development administers both the state and federal unemployment compensation programs. Kramer says people who qualify for emergency unemployment can apply to receive benefits for this week, but that will be it.

In the past when Congress allowed the program to lapse, the state was able to continue paying existing claims with money from the Emergency Unemployment Compensation fund. This time around, Kramer says that funding has not been renewed.

“The way Congress did this particular program, December 28 is the end of the program,” he says. “So even if an individual just established an emergency unemployment claim with us last week and they may have many weeks of benefits in their balance, we can only pay through this week.”

Alaska Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat, says the program should have been extended as part of the recent budget deal in Washington, D.C. Now he’ll work to renew it when Congress reconvenes in January.

“There’s no question the economy is growing, but there’s certain areas of the country that are still hurting, as well as in our own state,” Begich says.

The national unemployment rate was 5.6 percent when the program started. It topped out at 10 percent in October 2009, and now is down to 7 percent.

Begich says any bill reauthorizing emergency benefits will have to overcome a filibuster from Republicans, some of whom he says are philosophically opposed to unemployment insurance.

“I don’t get it. They complain the economy hasn’t rebounded, but then they don’t want to help with an unemployment extension. And then when people like myself say, well the economy is getting better, they say, well it’s really not as good as it could be,” Begich says. “So, there’s a lot of double speak that goes on in Washington from some of these guys who have been there way too long, and this is one of them.”

Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski says she’s open to extending the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, but wants to review a three-month extension proposed by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed and Nevada Republican Dean Heller.

“We recognize that the unemployment numbers are coming down,” Murkowski says. “Alaska, we’re just a little bit below the national average, but in places like Nevada and Rhode Island, where the two sponsors are from, unemployment is well over 9 percent.”

Both Murkowski and Begich say the emergency program should not last forever. Republican Alaska Congressman Don Young said via email that an extension would cost $25.2 billion over the course of year, which should require offsetting budget cuts.

State Unemployment Insurance Chief Bill Kramer says the Department of Labor is encouraging people whose benefits are about to expire to take advantage of the state’s network of 22 Job Centers, as well as online employment services.

“There’s resume workshops, they can do interviewing skills, depending on certain criteria if it’s more vocational training that they need in order to bring their skills to something where they can be more employable, they might be able to help that way,” Kramer says. “There’s just a whole host of services available to try and help people get back to work.”

Kramer says the Job Centers can help individuals over the phone as well.

Alaska’s unemployment rate was 6.5 percent in November, the 61st straight month below the national average.

Casey Kelly is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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