For now, jobless benefits still won't last past 86 weeksby Annie Baxter, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The latest extension of federal emergency unemployment benefits may have come as a relief to some Minnesotans who have been jobless for a long time.
But the new extension has led to a lot of confusion, with many unemployed unsure about how long checks will keep coming.
Adam Barrett of Minneapolis was watching to see if the long-awaited extension would finally pass.
He was laid off in November 2008 from a commercial real estate brokerage and hasn't found work since. Barrett ran out of unemployment benefits last week. He thought he would qualify to receive additional checks through November under the new extension.
"What these benefits did, was they made life easier to live. It allowed me to have enough to pay the bills for rent and utilities, and not much else," he said.
When Barrett called the state's unemployment program this week and found out he had misunderstood the extension, it was a blow.
"If you're a member of the longest-term unemployed, you're not going to see any more money. You're done," he said.
Barrett said he thinks politicians have misrepresented how much the extension could help people like him. He believed the federal extension beefed up the number of weeks you can collect benefits, but that's not the case.
It only extends the life of a program that had temporarily lapsed, and it keeps the maximum length of benefits at 86 weeks through November.
For Minnesotans like Barrett who have already hit the 86-week limit, the extension doesn't help.
Kirsten Morell with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development says the agency is getting plenty of calls from people who are befuddled by the extension's effect on them. The department is averaging about 27,000 calls per week, she said.
"And that number is actually up about 22 percent from the same time period last year," Morell said. "We're attributing that increase to the questions about these temporary benefits, about whether or not they're going to be continued or not."
Morell says the confusion is understandable. She notes that national media reports about the extension often referred to a total benefit period of 99 weeks, but that number only applies to states with higher unemployment rates.
"In Minnesota, with our unemployment rate the way that it is, our maximum number of weeks is 86, so that was one thing that was a little unclear to folks," she said.
And if Minnesota's jobless rate keeps falling, the maximum benefit package would drop, too.
Morell says the latest unemployment benefit extension will likely be the last. When it expires at the end of November, Minnesotans will only be able to pull in a maximum of 39 weeks of unemployment checks.
Morell says that means people should ask the state's workforce centers for help finding a job.
Rick McHugh, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, agrees that further extensions are unlikely, although his group would like to see more, given the labor market's weakness.
"Some hiring is taking place, but it's not enough to get us to a place where we can start replacing the 8 million jobs that have been lost or it's not nearly enough hiring to get people who are long term unemployed the chance of getting a job," he said.
Even with the latest extension in place, McHugh projects that about 2 million unemployed Americans will burn through all available jobless benefits between June and the end of the year.
In Minnesota about 1,000 jobless people exhaust all regular benefits -- and extensions -- each week.
- Morning Edition, 07/28/2010, 7:25 a.m.