It could be a difficult start to the new year for almost 2,000 people in Merced County who ran out of unemployment insurance benefits Friday.
The federal unemployment extension program was not part of the $1.01 trillion budget that Congress passed earlier this month, ending what had been 37 weeks of benefits for anyone without a job after California’s 26-week unemployment insurance expired.
“New Year’s is supposed to be a time of excitement and new beginnings, but for the long-term unemployed and their families, it continues to be a time of desperation,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez said Friday.
Perez noted that when the unemployment plan was authorized in 2008, the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent nationwide with an average duration of 17 weeks. Today the rate is 7 percent and the unemployed average a 36-week span of benefits.
Merced County’s jobless rate, at 13.6 percent, is about double the national rate.
At the height of the recession, federal government extensions granted up to 73 weeks of jobless benefits on top of the state’s provision. Congress began reeling in the extensions until last year when a last-minute agreement reduced the program to 37 weeks for 2013.
That’s the extension that ended Friday for about 1.3 million unemployed citizens nationwide. About 1 in 6 of them live in California, about 220,000.
Patti Roberts, Employment Development Department communications manager, said the 1,939 people in Merced whose benefits ran out may only need to wait for Congress to reconvene in the new year.
“Yes, the benefits are going to stop (today), but there is talk about Congress and the president re-examining the situation when they get back from their break,” Roberts said.
In the meantime, the department’s website, www.edd.ca.gov, lists services for anybody who is experiencing difficult financial times. The Employment Development Department will also release the latest updates through Twitter and Facebook, Roberts said.
Another agency, Merced County Workforce Investment, offers job search assistance and a slew of other services for those out of work. Robert Morris, director of Worknet, said he expects to see some new faces passing through the office now that benefits have dried up.
“Some of these folks have been working for a while and they’re kind of shocked that they’re out of work and then unemployment (ends),” Morris said. “Now they really have to make a diligent search to find employment.”
Worknet is privy to a number of sources that list job openings that can’t be seen during a search on a home computer, Morris said. The agency also offers free help on writing résumés and looking for work.
There are jobs available in the area, Morris said, but job seekers may need training to fill those slots. Worknet offers free training in areas that are in demand, occupations involving mechanical, electrical, auto mechanic, truck driving and health care skills.
Some analysts foresee dried up unemployment benefits as a blow to local and state spending. The federal unemployment insurance program has pumped $44.85 billion into unemployed Californians’ wallets since 2008, according to state statistics.
Despite federal extensions that at one point paid unemployment claims of up to 99 weeks when combined with state assistance, about 1.26 million Californians have been without work so long that they have run out of benefits, according to state statistics. This year, an average of 172,500 Californians each month have exhausted their combined state and federal 63-week benefits.