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Unemployment, Congress, and People Like Me

$297.00

That was the size of my weekly unemployment insurance benefit from the District of Columbia. Two hundred ninety-seven dollars and zero cents. I signed up to start receiving UI benefits shortly after being laid off on Monday, November 15, 2010, appx. 10:30am.

On that fateful Monday morning, I became a statistic: Since the recession officially ended in June 2009, even as the economy added over 1.2 million jobs, women have lost 46,000 jobs. These days, 46.2 percent of women have been unemployed long enough to reach the mark of “long-term unemployment,” which is being jobless for 27 or more weeks.

Every week for nearly four months, I logged in online to my benefits claim system to declare that, yes, I was still unemployed; no, I had not worked this week; yes, I was still looking for work. Every week I’d receive $297.00, deposited directly into my checking account. And every week, I’d watch as the total fund allotted to me as an unemployed person dropped, fearing what would happen if I reached the day that balance hit $0.00. For every day of my unemployment, this was my lifeline – and I was watching it run out before my eyes. This benefit afforded me $1,188.00 each month, but $1,100.00 of that went directly to my rent. Trying to pay for your food, gas and electric bills, and metro fare on $88.00 a month isn’t easy. It’s practically impossible.

Six months is a terrible length of time to be unemployed. No one wants to be out of a job that long, yet this is what’s happening right now to many Americans. Of all the jobless women and men in America, nearly half (46.2 percent for women and 47.5 for men) have been unemployed for more than six months. Just as D.C. unemployment insurance was my lifeline, the lifeline for these long-term unemployed men and women is federal emergency unemployment benefits. These are funds the unemployed can pull from should they exhaust their state-based unemployment funds.

The program that provides benefits for long-term unemployed workers will expire on December 31, 2011. That’s a mere 23 days from now. We need Congress to extend these UI benefits now. If they don’t, 6 million workers will end up losing access to UI benefits in 2012.

Let me tell you this: these funds are a necessity for many. Not by desire or by choice, but by lack of other options. When you reach the need for long-term unemployment insurance, you reach it because otherwise there is no way to pay your rent or your mortgage, no way to pay your bills, no way to once, after saving for a few weeks, treat yourself to a movie or a drink out with friends to help keep your sanity in your life, which has been thrust into a realm of things that are completely not normal to you.

I was lucky in the sense that I had a bit of a safety net in place while out of work. I’d been paid a severance fee upon official termination of my employment, and if I really, desperately needed it, I had the good old Bank of Mom and Dad willing to give me a loan and then immediately forgive it. But not every woman in America has those tools at their disposal. And not only that, but more Americans could end up losing jobs if these benefits expire.

There is truly an unemployment emergency in our country. Congress can help to do its part in solving this crisis by acting now and renewing the federal unemployment insurance program through 2012.