Politics & Government

Californians face new year without long-term unemployment benefits

Unemployed chef Luis Gomez visited the state employment center on Broadway on Thursday, thinking that he had nearly a year before his unemployment checks stop coming.

He doesn’t. A federal program that extended jobless benefits expires on Saturday, immediately dumping more than 220,000 Californians from long-term unemployment insurance rolls and lopping off nearly nine months of coverage for more recently unemployed workers such as Gomez.

He worries that won’t be enough time for him to find work. He’s been searching nearly two months.

“There’s not a lot out there,” Gomez said.

The federal extension program didn’t survive in the $1.01 trillion budget that Congress passed earlier this month, ending what had been 37 weeks of jobless benefits that would kick in once California’s 26-week unemployment insurance expired.

At the height of the recession, federal government extensions granted up to 73 weeks of job benefits on top of what the state provides. Congress began reeling in the extensions until last year when a last-minute agreement reduced the program to 37 weeks for 2013.

That’s the extension that ends today for about 1.3 million unemployed citizens nationwide. About one in six of them live in California. More than 12,100 live in the four-county Sacramento region, according to a tally by the National Employment Law Project.

Democrats have tried to save the program, and there’s still talk that Capitol Hill could revisit the issue next year. Lawmakers have introduced six bills to continue jobless benefits from three months to two years after state programs expire.

As it became apparent that Congress was moving toward a budget without the extension, Gov. Jerry Brown urged Senate and House leaders to reconsider.

“When these benefits were first authorized, the national unemployment rate was only 5.6 percent,” Brown said in a Dec. 12 letter to Congress. “The national rate is still 7 percent and 36 states, including California, have even higher unemployment rates than when the extension benefits were originally authorized.”

The economic recovery has cut unemployment rates from double-digit percentage recession highs in much of California. Still, the Golden State’s 8.5 percent unemployment rate last month remains well above the national mark. Large parts of the Central Valley and Inland Empire are significantly higher than the state average.

Gomez said he worked at Crawdad’s River Cantina in Sacramento until he lost his job in November. It’s the first time in 30 years that the 53-year-old chef has been unemployed. The competition for work is intense, he said, recalling his recent tryout at a Rancho Cordova restaurant – with 40 other chefs.

Gomez has resisted taking lower-paying cook jobs because, he said, “I cannot go from making $60,000 per year to 10 bucks an hour. I can’t support the family on that.”

But now that he has less time to find a new job before his benefits run out, he’s considering whether to take two lower-paying jobs to make ends meet.

“I need some kind of income to put food on the table,” he said.

Tens of thousands of out-of-work Californians will make similar calculations in the coming months, said Sanjay Varshney, dean of California State University, Sacramento, business school.

“You’ll definitely see more people jump in” to the job market, Varshney said.

He also expects the state’s economy will suffer from the extension program’s expiration. The federal unemployment insurance program has pumped $44.85 billion into unemployed Californians’ wallets since 2008, according to state statistics. Cutting off that money will undoubtedly tamp down spending locally and statewide, Varshney said.

Jamil Dada of Riverside, a member of the California Workforce Investment Board, visited Congress last month to encourage lawmakers to extend the unemployment assistance.

“It’s going to be a big issue in my local region,” said Dada, the past chairman of the National Association of Workforce Boards. “There are going to be so many people this is going to affect.

“At this point we can just hope that after Congress comes back that they’ll pick this thing up,” he added. “We’re going to advocate they go back and fix this retroactively.”

Some House Republicans have argued that federal unemployment extensions will discourage job-seeking efforts and hurt employment prospects, a point of view that Dada said he appreciates.

“On a national scale, at some point we need to say time’s up and it needs to come to an end,” he said.

Despite federal extensions that at one point paid unemployment claims up to 99 weeks when combined with state assistance, about 1.26 million Californians have been without work so long that they have run out of benefits, according to state statistics. This year, an average 172,500 Californians each month have exhausted their combined state and federal 63-week benefits.

The state Employment Development Department issued notices to 222,000 job seekers who are losing their benefits today, roughly one-third of the more than 712,000 Californians who receive unemployment assistance.