McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

State House

December 8, 2010

Benefits in question

Thousands of unemployed Oklahomans to lose unemployment insurance

OKLAHOMA CITY — Thousands of unemployed Oklahomans are watching Congress to see if their federal unemployment benefits will come to an end.

President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans announced a deal Monday to extend federal unemployment benefits for 13 months as part of a compromise to renew tax cuts that the GOP covets. Member of both parties, however, expressed reservations about the deal Tuesday and the fate of the legislation remains uncertain.

What it means in Oklahoma

Unemployed residents receiving the federal weekly payments will start to lose their benefits once their current round expires unless the bill is passed.

Extended benefits beyond the 26 weeks Oklahoma provides lapsed on Dec. 1. Two million Americans are estimated to be affected if the benefits, which can be used for up to 47 weeks beyond the state payments, are not renewed.

About 120,000 Oklahomans – or 6.5 percent of the workforce – are unemployed, according to October's employment report. John Carpenter, public information officer for the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, said more than 8,000 Oklahomans are receiving the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefit payments. The state and federal benefits typically pay eligible residents an average of about $300 per week.

Richard Ross, a Tuttle resident formerly from Stillwater, said he's been in the job market for more than a year after losing his job in the technical support field. Ross said unless Congress acts, his benefits will expire in January. Without the $270 he is provided each week, he said he might have to revise his job-seeking plans to settle for a lower paying job.

“It's going to hurt when it runs out,” he said of his benefits while attending a job fair last week at Rose State College. “I'm going to have to be looking then for those $7 or $8 an hour jobs instead. But I'm 50 years old, and I'll be having to look at fast-food jobs that pay minimum wage. I should be looking for something more long-term.”

The employment commission's Carpenter said the loss of benefits would come incrementally in Oklahoma. There are three tiers of federal benefits, and residents would be able to receive payments for the weeks of the tier that already have been approved. Carpenter expects about 2,000 unemployed Oklahomans to lose their benefits each week without a federal extension in place.

The newly unemployed could also feel the impact. Instead of having the possible cushion of more than a year to find a job while receiving benefits, they would just have the six and a half months that the state provides.

Jamila McDonald, an Oklahoma City resident, said she lost her position in customer service and data entry about a month ago. She said finding a new job as soon as possible is even more important since she knows her time to receive benefits might be more limited.

“I'm making it a priority to find something comparable,” she said. “It's hard because I know employers are looking for a specific type of person, but that's why it's important to get yourself out there in this job market.”

Congress extended or modified the federal benefits – called the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program – several times since it was created in June 2008. With nationwide unemployment hovering near 10 percent, lawmakers spent $35 billion to pass the most recent extension in July that continued the program through the end of November.

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