Let's not forget to bail out the little guy

Published11/15/2008 12:03 AM

WASHINGTON - No longer is unemployment somebody else's problem. Chances are you know someone who has lost a job recently. Or you know somebody who knows somebody who has become unemployed through no fault of their own.

Amid all the hustle and bustle to fix the economy, there's one thing we can't forget to address: the extension of unemployment insurance benefits and a broadening of the program to provide benefits to more people.


In November alone, several major companies have announced large layoffs:

-The package delivery company DHL Express is eliminating 9,500 jobs. DHL announced it would close all of its U.S. ground hubs and discontinue its domestic air and ground services in January. That would leave just its international operation.

-Ford Motor said it was cutting 2,600 hourly employees as a result of targeted buyouts - bringing the company's total U.S. hourly reductions through buyouts to 7,000.

-General Motors, whose company stock has plummeted, said it would cut production, idling 5,500 hourly employees.

- The retailer Circuit City filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and announced it was closing 155 stores, affecting about 17 percent of its work force.

- Fidelity Investments announced it would lay off 2.9 percent of its 44,400 employees. The company said a second round of job cuts is planned for the first quarter of next year.

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- Drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline said it was cutting 1,000 jobs.

I could go on, but it's just too depressing.

The U.S. employment ranks have shrunk by 1.2 million in the first 10 months of this year. But more than half of those jobs were lost in the past three months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In October, 240,000 jobs vanished.

There is a safety net for a portion of the workers who have lost their jobs. They can turn to unemployment insurance, which was created in 1935 in response to the Great Depression. Unemployment insurance provides partial wage replacement to unemployed workers while they look for work. Each state administers a separate unemployment insurance program within federal guidelines.

In general, benefits are based on a percentage of an individual's earnings over a recent 52-week period - up to a state maximum amount.

Typically, you can get unemployment insurance benefits for up to 26 weeks in most states. When things get really bad, the federal government will extend the number of weeks that people can collect benefits. Congress temporarily added 13 more weeks in June.

Almost 800,000 workers exhausted their extended unemployment benefits in October and more than 350,000 more will exhaust theirs in November and December, according to estimates from the National Employment Law Project.


I understand all the attention on helping corporations. The companies, after all, provide the jobs. But we've still got to help individuals who have been let go by ailing companies.

The average weekly benefit nationally for the unemployed was just $296.69 as of September.

Oh, by the way, unemployment insurance benefits are subject to federal income taxes.

On average, benefits replace about 36 percent of an unemployed worker's previous earnings, although the replacement rate ranges depending on how much you earned, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

What's most troubling about the unemployment insurance program is who qualifies. Many unemployed workers, especially those with lower incomes, don't.

"If you have to leave your job to take care of a sick kid, in many states you wouldn't qualify for benefits," says Chad Stone, chief economist for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "If you had a full-time job and can only find part-time work, you can't collect benefits in many states."

About two-thirds of states do not consider workers eligible for unemployment insurance if they are available only for part-time work.

In many states, low-wage workers are unfairly denied benefits because the method used to determine eligibility does not count all of their latest earnings, according to the National Employment Law Project.

Additionally, temporary workers and those who are routinely misclassified by their employers as independent contractors often lose out on unemployment benefits.

Back when the unemployment insurance program was established, most of the labor force consisted of men who were employed full time in the manufacturing or trade sectors.

"The criteria for determining unemployment eligibility have not kept up with the changing realities of the U.S. labor market," Stone said.

There's a chance that an economic stimulus package will contain provisions to extend unemployment benefits. However, any measure that is passed should also include provisions to update the eligibility rules for unemployment insurance benefits.

"Expanding coverage makes unemployment insurance more potent as an economic stimulus in a recession and helps keep any economic slump as short and shallow as possible," Stone said.

This has got to be an issue we all embrace because the next one fired may be you.

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