Jobless benefits extension helps many in county

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 3, 2013 

— Christmas came late for Darrick Brown.

The 46-year-old Mercedian is one of 400,000 Californians who was set to lose his federally extended unemployment benefits at the end of December in the potential absence of a reauthorization from Congress.

Brown, who left his trucking job in Texas and came to California for family reasons, has found the area's employment market to be a tough one and relies on the unemployment benefits to take care of his two kids as he searches for work, ideally in accounting.

"It pays rent and pays for our groceries," he said. "It's all we have coming in."

Though the federal extensions expired Saturday, they were reauthorized as part of "fiscal cliff" deal passed by Congress on New Year's Day.

For Brown and others facing the cutoff in benefits, the renewal came as a welcome gift, even if it was a late one. "I was really stressed," said Brown, whose federally extended benefits will last until Feb. 13.

Before the recession, most Californians could qualify for a maximum of 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits to be paid by their employer.

Then, in June 2008, Congress started federal extensions that allowed unemployed workers to get a maximum of 99 total weeks of benefits in an attempt to help people through the recession.

That number dropped to 73 total weeks in May because of improvements to the state's jobless rate.

Though the recent reauthorization doesn't include any additional weeks of benefits, it allows people to continue to draw from their current claims and allows others to file for benefits through the end of 2013, said Kevin Callori, spokesman for the state Employment Development Department.

For those who already have claims, the EDD will automatically reopen and continue them, Callori said. Those individuals don't need to contact the department.

"We're not expecting any interruptions," he noted.

Michelle Allison, program manager at the Merced office of Worknet of Merced County, said she's glad the benefits were extended. She said they're a necessary tool to help people during transitional periods. Worknet is an agency that assists people looking for work with resources and training.

Though it took a while to be approved, Allison said the renewed federal extension to unemployment benefits is a way to assist people who are out of work and help keep the economy moving.

"I always felt confident that this would occur at the 11th or 12th hour," she said.

In Merced County, 17,200 people are unemployed, resulting in a jobless rate of 15.7 percent. Had Congress not renewed the federal extensions to unemployment benefits, about 3,200 Merced County residents would have been cut off.

Between state and federal unemployment benefits, about $284 million a week is paid to Californians.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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