Over a million out-of-work Americans will be ringing in the new year with a lot more uncertainty about the future.
Jobless benefits are slated to expire this weekend for 1.3 million people who receive the long-term federal aid payments that kick in after state insurance payments run out. The emergency benefits, which were instituted during the 2008 recession, allowed many individuals to receive benefits for up to 99 weeks while seeking work. While the program has been extended 11 times, lawmakers failed to reach a year-end agreement to maintain it.
The lapse means more than just fewer presents under the tree for unemployed people like Nancy Connelly-Cumming, a single mother who lives in Newbury Park, Calif.
She’s been looking for work since losing her job at a nonprofit group in September 2012. “Absolutely, I couldn't have survived this long without an unemployment benefit,” she told NBC News. “That was definitely what kept me going.”
Connelly-Cumming said she’s been applying for minimum-wage jobs and that she fears losing her home if she stops receiving her aid. “I don't want my children to know,” she said. “They're 16 and 14 and they're pretty aware of what’s going on but I don't want them to come to the realization that we might not have this home in a couple of months. I don't want them to know that. They don’t have to worry. That’s my job.”
A bipartisan team of senators is pushing for a short-term fix after Congress returns to Washington in January.
Sens. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, and Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, are proposing a three-month extension of the benefits program that would also retroactively pay the missed checks to the long-term unemployed. Reed said Thursday that he expects the first vote on that proposal to be held Jan. 6.
President Barack Obama called the two lawmakers on Friday from Hawaii to thank them for their proposal and to pledge to fight for its passage, the White House said.
“This is just enough to keep people going -- in some cases, barely enough to keep people going,” Reed said on a conference call with reporters. “Paying the rent, paying for fuel, going to the dollar store, not to upscale shops.”
Deborah Barrett, a former accounting manager from Rhode Island who was laid off in February, joined Reed on the call.
“Without the continuation of federal unemployment insurance, I don't know how we'll be able to stay in our home or how we will get by until I land my next job,” she said.
Democratic lawmakers had tried to extend the insurance benefits during the December fight over the federal budget, but they failed to insert even a temporary fix in the compromise legislation drafted by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
After the passage of the budget deal, Obama called on Congress to pass the temporary extension as soon as they return from the holiday break.
“Because Congress didn't act, more than 1 million of their constituents will lose a vital economic lifeline at Christmastime, leaving a lot of job-seekers without any source of income at all,” Obama said during a year-end press conference. “I think we're a better country than that. We don't abandon each other when times are tough.”
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid placed blame for the expiration of benefits squarely with Republicans.
“In the past, Democrats and Republicans have worked together to extend unemployment insurance for those still looking for work,” Reid said in a statement last week. “Sadly, Republicans have now decided that they would rather let this program expire than cooperate with Democrats.”
Republicans warn that the extension of benefits would increase the deficit by $25 billion, although some have said they are open to some kind of fix if supporters find a way to pay for it.
Other high-profile GOP lawmakers have suggested that continuing the aid could hurt workers in the long run.
"I support unemployment benefits for the 28 weeks they're paid for," Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul said on "Fox News Sunday" earlier this month. "If you extend it beyond that, you do a disservice to these workers."
That’s a characterization that recipients of the aid say is out of touch.
“My job search is my full-time job,” said Barrett, who said she has been caring for her elderly mother while she looks for work. “I am sick and tired of people insinuating that folks in my position are not really trying to find jobs and are content to remain on unemployment. Such willful ignorance is deplorable.”
Connelly-Cumming says she’s waited for hours at coffee shops and grocery stores to speak to supervisors about jobs, with no success.
“When you've been out of work so long, you know, people begin to think, “’Well, maybe she doesn't want to work. Surely she can get a job at any of the fast food places,’” she said. “Well, I can't!”
Liberal groups hope to make the GOP pay a political price for its stance.
Progressive organization Americans United for Change has launched a national TV ad blitz slamming Republicans for their stance on the insurance payments.
"Who had a merry Christmas? The richest one percent," a voice in the ad booms. "Republicans in Congress made sure of that, protecting billions in taxpayer giveaways and for those facing tough times, Republicans stripped 1.3 million Americans of jobless benefits — folks who want to work but cannot find a job."