“There’s no excuse for states to let 100 percent federally funded jobless support just die on the vine,” said Christine Owens, Executive Director of the National Employment Law Project. “This is a no-brainer for states to help their workers, businesses and economies.”
The no-brainer Owens refers to is an unemployment insurance extension known as Extended Benefits approved by Congress and waiting to be used by states.
Oklahoma is one of 9 qualifying states – along with Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Utah and Wyoming —that has not taken advantage of the Extended Benefits provision that NELP estimates would provide 13 additional weeks of assistance for over 29,000 long-term unemployed Oklahomans and inject $101 million in federally-funded benefits to help support Oklahoma families and businesses.
A defining feature of the Great Recession has been the large number of people who have been out of work for very long stretches through no fault of their own. The national unemployment rate has now been above 6.5 percent since October 2008, while Oklahoma’s unemployment rate has topped 6.5 percent since May 2009. As the Economist noted in December:
6.3m people, 42% of those unemployed, have been jobless for more than 26 weeks. That number does not include 2.5m people who want a job but who have not looked for a month or more, or the 9m who want full-time work but can only find part-time openings.
For much of this population, weekly Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits have been the thin net keeping them and their families from plunging into full financial chaos.
Congress has taken various steps over the past 30 months to support the long-term jobless by funding extended weeks of UI benefits. Most recently, President Obama and Congress included an extension of jobless benefits as part of the compromise legislation on tax cuts.
Under the legislation, unemployed workers will be eligible for a total of 60 weeks of UI benefits in all states, and an additional 13 to 19 weeks in states with high levels of unemployment. In addition, the law enacted important changes to a program called Extended Benefits (EB). Under EB, states with unemployment rates above 6.5 percent qualify for an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits (states with unemployment rates over 8 percent qualify for 20 weeks). Normally, EB costs are split between the federal government and the state, but under Recovery Act provisions that have now been extended, EB will be fully federally-funded through December 31, 2011.
The one important condition to this eligibility for additional assistance is that states must amend the EB provisions in their state laws to take advantage of the new rules. Since 2008, over half the states adopted the optional state legislation required to take advantage of the Recovery Act’s provisions – in most cases including a sunset provision terminating the benefits when the 100 percent federal funding runs out (this provision is part of model legislation developed by the U.S. Department of Labor). Other states, however, including Oklahoma, initially opted not to activate an Extended Benefit program, pointing to uncertainty about whether the program would be continued and whether the state would remain eligible for benefits. These concerns, however, have now been addressed.
The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, the state agency that administers the UI program, officially declined to comment on this subject but has so far not pushed for legislation that would allow Oklahoma to qualify for Extended Benefits. The Legislature could still take action this session to ensure that workers who are exhausting benefits without finding new jobs will qualify for the additional help. Even if, as hoped and expected, job growth picks up over the coming year, high levels of unemployment are likely to persist for the foreseeable future in Oklahoma and across the nation. Making Unemployment Insurance benefits available to the long-term jobless population for an additional 13 weeks is the right thing for Oklahoma to do.
Update: For an update on these Unemployment Insurance benefits, see Where Are They Now? Bills we kept our eye on