Hundreds of thousands of unemployed Californians are in limbo as Congress clashes over extending jobless benefits.
With the state unemployment rate at 12.4 percent and Stanislaus County at 17.3 percent, the stakes and worries are high. Already some 260,000 Californians have lost their long-term benefits since Congress began wrangling over an extension, according to numbers from the state Employment Development Department.
Lawmakers broke for the Independence Day recess on Friday without coming to an agreement. By the time they return to session Monday, it is estimated that more than 2.1 million U.S. residents who have been unemployed for more than six months will have missed checks.
The fight to extend benefits has been going on for more than a month, with Republican senators blocking the bill. They argue that it will put too much strain on the federal deficit. Democrats, meanwhile, hope voters will punish the GOP in the fall for taking a hard line on a benefit that helps people deal with lean times.
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But as the political game plays out, unemployed workers including Monte Bronson of Modesto are taking the brunt of the punishment.
The 53-year-old father of two has worked in construction for the past 30 years. A mason by trade, he said he has worked steadily his whole adult life. But when the economy ground to a halt in 2008, the jobs went away.
He has drawn unemployment on-and-off for two years and is on his second federal extension. He's waiting to see if he will get another one. Four tiers of regular long-term unemployment benefit extensions are available, with a special fifth tier that gives the jobless up to 99 weeks of coverage.
"The number of Californians (affected by the impasse) will continue to grow as time goes on because more people are exhausting their regular or extension tier of benefits," said EDD spokesman Patrick Joyce. "The longer it goes on, week after week, the more people will lose their benefits."
Bronson's last check came last week. He filed an extension but has yet to hear back from the EDD.
If it isn't approved, Bronson said, he won't be able to make next month's rent.
"I am looking at homelessness, really," he said. "Next month I might be down at the Modesto Gospel Mission or standing on a corner with a sign. I don't know."
Bronson also pays child support to his ex-wife out of his unemployment check for his two daughters, ages 12 and 16.
With the stakes this high, Bronson said, he watched the Senate hearings all last week.
"It's an argument between Republicans and Democrats. I just don't understand it," he said. "They don't care about the working guy. The Republicans say if they stop unemployment, people will go back to work. But there is no work to go to."
Bronson said he plans to look into more training programs and see what other help is available as the prospect of losing his benefits looms large. He is even considering returning to his roots as a merchant seaman, which he did as a young man.
Jeff Rowe, director of the Alliance Worknet in Stanislaus County, said the organization is bracing for an influx of out-of-work residents looking for more help now that their benefits have lapsed. Already, he said, more than 200 people come in daily to use the resource center.
"We probably will see an increase in the people who come in and want more one-on-one intensive assistance," Rowe said. "Their urgency will be to finding a job as soon as possible."
Rowe said the number of people requesting job training could drop as the number of people requesting job placement increases. Already his office has shifted some resources, offering weekly workshops on job tips and searches.
But even the potential of more help isn't much comfort for jobless workers like Bronson. What he needs most, he said, is a check.
"Looking at homelessness is scary," he said. "I've never been homeless, and I always had money in my pocket. It's just rough."
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2284.