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Congress Extends Unemployment Benefits

By Bill Leonard  11/5/2009
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As expected, the U.S. House of Representatives acted quickly to pass legislation (H.R. 3548) that will extend unemployment benefits for up to 20 additional weeks. The House voted overwhelmingly on Nov. 5, 2009, to pass the legislation that the Senate approved with a unanimous vote just one day before.

The measure will provide an extra 14 weeks of benefits in states with unemployment rates less than 8.5 percent. Unemployment benefits will be extended by 20 weeks in states with jobless rates above the 8.5 percent threshold.

The legislation now goes to the White House. President Barack Obama has indicated that he supports the extension and will sign the measure into law.

The benefits extension will apply to jobless workers whose unemployment insurance benefits are set to run out on Dec. 31, 2009. Anyone whose benefits have already expired will be eligible to reapply for the additional aid.

“With 15 million Americans still unemployed and vying for just three million available jobs, we did the right thing today by passing this bill and doing it in a fiscally responsible way,” Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., a key sponsor of the legislation, told reporters. “Today, we gave unemployed Americans the chance they need to get back on their feet, get through this tough time and start working again.”

During the economic downturn, Congress has voted to extend unemployment benefits twice. With the extensions, jobless workers in some states have been eligible to receive unemployment benefits for up to 79 weeks.

The most recent extension did meet with some political opposition and many unemployed workers worried that they would lose a valuable lifeline. To ensure the measure’s passage, the benefits extension was combined with an expansion of a popular homebuyers’ tax credit. After the measure passed both houses, several Republican leaders warned that it would be the final extension of unemployment benefits.

Congress was expected to turn its attention to another popular program for the unemployed. A government subsidy of COBRA health insurance premiums for unemployed workers was set to start expiring in December 2009.

The subsidy program was part of the massive $789 billion economic stimulus and pays 65 percent of COBRA health insurance premiums for people who lost or will lose their jobs between Sept. 1, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2009. The subsidy payments are set to last for nine months and are available only to jobless workers who don’t have another way to get group health insurance coverage. An analysis from Hewitt Associates revealed that enrollments in COBRA health plans have doubled since the Congress enacted the subsidy in February 2009.

Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., has introduced legislation (H.R. 3930) that would extend the COBRA subsidy for six more months and expand the program’s window of eligibility for people who lose their jobs until June 30, 2010. Sestak’s proposal was referred to the House Education and Labor Committee. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate had not indicated if they will push for passage of the legislation.

However, sources familiar with the issue say the measure could be included as an amendment to the health care reform package.

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM.

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