6,500 Alaskans to lose long-term unemployment benefits Saturday

mtheriault@adn.comDecember 27, 2013 

On Saturday, 6,500 unemployed Alaskans will stop getting benefits as a federal program meant to help the long-term jobless expires. That number represents about a quarter of all people getting unemployment checks in the state.

Marie Jmili is one of them.

Jmili has been unemployed since she left a position in Anchorage with the Southcentral Foundation to move to Kodiak, where she planned to care for her aging grandmother.

In Kodiak she applied for secretarial jobs and got a few interviews. When nothing worked out, she applied to work at Wal-Mart.

"Not Christmas help, nothing," she said.

Now, without the roughly $800 per month she was getting from the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, Jmili is worried that she and her teenage daughter will lose their apartment.

"We've never been this poor," she said in a phone interview from her home in Kodiak on Friday.

Nationally, 1.3 million people will lose cash assistance when the federal program expires.

The recession-era program was meant to provide a financial safety net to job seekers struggling to find work after the standard 26 weeks of unemployment ran out.

Long-term unemployment benefits have been paid by states, using federal money.

In November, Alaska distributed $4.5 million through the program.

Congress let the payments expire as part of a December budget deal. Some Democrats are pushing to get the payments reinstated in 2014, but the chances of that happening appear dim.

Alaska's congressional delegation is split on the idea.

Rep. Don Young said in a statement Friday that any extension of the benefits would require equal cuts to "not add an additional burden onto our already bloated federal budget."

Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich have both said they are open to an extension of the program.

Alaska's economy has generally weathered the economic downturn far better than most of the Lower 48, said Lennon Weller, an economist with the state's Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

In November Alaska had a jobless rate of 6.5 percent, which is below the national average of 7 percent.

But long-term unemployment is still a vexing issue.

Alaskans getting the emergency money last worked in a variety of industries including construction, seafood processing, retail, local government and health care, Weller said.

The emergency benefits program pumped an extra $80 million into the state during the last fiscal year, he said.

The expiration of benefits is a hard cutoff, meaning even people with weeks left in their eligibility will stop receiving checks after Saturday, said Patsy Westcott of the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

For Marie Jmili, the future after her last unemployment check runs out is a question mark. A move back to Anchorage seems like the answer but her savings are depleted.

Right now, she said, it feels hard to believe that she once had a job as an Administrative Assistant III with the state.

"I don't know what I'm going to do. I really don't."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

 

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