Congress poised to battle over extended unemployment

6:45 PM, Jan 3, 2014   |    comments
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KUSA - When Congress returns to Washington next week, one of the first big fights will be over an unwelcome Christmas gift for many unemployed people.

Long-term unemployment benefits have been cut off for 1.3 million people and Senate Democrats and the White House want to put those benefits back in place. 

Not everybody feels the economic recovery yet.

"It's getting very stressful," said Kristin Sage of Johnstown, Colorado. "I try not to worry but it's in the back of my mind about losing my brand new house that I just got, that I worked so hard to get."

Sage was laid off from her job as a private prison guard.

She's back in college, looking for work, and thankfully her husband is still employed.

Still, her unemployment benefits help a lot.

"I get $600 every two weeks. So $1,200 [a month,] that's exactly my mortgage payment right there," Sage said.

The 1.3 million other people in her boat were cut off from extended benefits after Christmas.

While the end of extended benefits needs to come eventually, in an exclusive interview with 9NEWS, U.S. labor secretary Tom Perez said unemployment needs to drop more first.

"We're not where we need to be yet. It would be unprecedented quite literally, given the current rate of long-term unemployment," Perez said. "There are people who are suffering. Millions of people who are suffering."

He wants this debate when unemployment drops closer to 6 percent than the current 7 percent rate. A drop in the length of time people are out of work would help, too.

"When this was enacted in 2008, the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent and the average duration of unemployment was 17 weeks," Perez said. "We're now at seven percent and the average duration is 36 weeks."

But some, like Jon Caldara from the Independence Institute, think we shouldn't wait.

"Because when you have an incentive, even a slight incentive, for people not to take jobs, that keeps a recovery from happening sooner," Caldara said. "It's very tempting to keep unemployment benefits going indefinitely, because we all know people who are hurting, we've all been touched by the recent downturn. But sooner or later you have to ask the question 'what's the difference between unemployment and complete welfare?'"

To Caldara's point, Sage isn't taking just any job. At least, not yet.

"If my benefits run out, I will do whatever, go get a job at you know a gas station or Taco Bell or something like that to survive," Sage said. "But at that point, I don't know if that will even pay my bills."

The truth is that whenever extended unemployment benefits do end, some people like Kristen will hurt in the short term.

The timing of that decision will determine how many people end up feeling the pain.

9NEWS also asked Perez about employment issues raised by the legalization of marijuana. You can read that story here. 

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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