Unemployment benefits extension in tax-cut deal only goes so far

While bipartisan tax legislation signed by President Obama on Friday reinstates unemployment benefits for about 1 million people, it doesn't provide any additional help for those who have exhausted all 99 weeks.

The $858 billion measure provides for an extension of federal unemployment benefits through the end of 2011 but only for those who have exhausted their 26 weeks of state jobless insurance or who are working their way through the federal tiers.

The White House, Democratic lawmakers and advocates for continuing federal unemployment benefits made the case for the extension through next year but didn't push for providing benefits beyond 99 weeks.

That could leave a growing number of so-called 99ers — about 10 percent of the unemployed — without benefits soon, especially those laid off during the height of unemployment claims that hit in early 2009.

That's the bad news.

The good news for that segment of the unemployed is that the job market appears more willing to start churning out jobs again. It's been a slow progression but initial unemployment claims have dropped into the low 400,000s, signaling modest job growth in an economy that shed 8 million jobs through the recession.

The number of long-term unemployed, those jobless for 27 weeks and more, was little changed at 6.3 million and accounted for 41.9 percent of the unemployed in November. That's a year-over-year increase, up from 38.7 percent in November 2009 but down from 44.7 percent in July.

When benefits expired Nov. 30, about 1 million people scattered across all 50 states stopped receiving unemployment checks, which provide an additional 34 and up to 53 weeks of benefits based on the state's unemployment levels under the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC), which was enacted in 2008.

After state and EUC benefits are used up, unemployed workers can receive benefits through the permanent federal-state Extended Benefits (EB) program, between 13 to 20 weeks, if their state’s unemployment insurance laws call for it, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP).

Under the new tax law, states won't have to show that their unemployment rates increased during the past two years to keep the EB program. In addition, the legislation gives 10 states — Arkansas, Iowa, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming — an opportunity to provide the EB benefit to jobless workers, if they pass state legislation. Currently, 977,000 workers are receiving extended benefits, according to NELP.

Overall, half of all states qualify for the 99 weeks, because the unemployment rate is at least 8.5 percent with some of the highest unemployment in California, Georgia and Rhode Island, according to Labor Department statistics. Of those 25 states, 12 have jobless rates at least as high as the 9.8 percent national level, while nine are mired in double-digit unemployment.

Based on levels of unemployment, six states are eligible to provide 86 weeks of benefits, nine for 73 weeks and five, which have an unemployment rate below 6 percent, can offer up to 60 weeks. Mississippi is the only state offering 79 weeks.

North Dakota reported the lowest jobless rate, 3.8 percent, followed by South Dakota and Nebraska, 4.5 and 4.6 percent, respectively. New Hampshire (5.4 percent) and Vermont (5.7 percent) also boast rates under 6 percent and can offer up to 60 weeks of benefits.

At 14.3 percent, Nevada had the highest unemployment rate among the states in November. California and Michigan each have 12.4 percent unemployment while Florida has a 12 percent rate and Rhode Island is at 11.6 percent, according to the Labor Department.

Regional and state unemployment rates were generally little changed in November, with 21 states and the District of Columbia recording unemployment rate increases, while 15 states showed rate decreases and 14 states had no rate change, the Labor Department reported.

Meanwhile, 28 states and D.C. posted unemployment rate decreases from a year earlier, 17 states reported increases, and five states had no change. The national jobless rate edged up by 0.2 percentage point between October and November to 9.8 percent, but was about the same as the same time last year.