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Advocates Renew Push to Keep Unemployment Benefits

As the deadline for avoiding the fiscal cliff draws ever nearer, advocates for out-of-work Americans have redoubled their push to make sure unemployment benefits don’t expire for 2 million workers Dec. 29.

The campaign is the centerpiece of a multi-part agenda that the National Employment Law Project, which advocates on behalf of low-income and unemployed workers, released Wednesday.

The group’s 100-day policy agenda for Congress and the Obama administration also includes establishing federal minimum wage and overtime standards for home health care workers, investing $250 billion annually in infrastructure projects over five years, strengthening worker health and safety protections and raising the minimum wage for all workers.

While some items, such as a minimum wage hike, would face stiff GOP resistance on Capitol Hill, others may soon prove within reach. These include extending soon-to-expire unemployment benefits for one year, which is front and center on NELP’s agenda. The group is spearheading a lobbying campaign to extend the benefits with a coalition of progressive organizations, from labor to women’s and religious groups.

With the help of allied organizations, NELP has collected almost 60,000 signatures on a petition calling on Congress to extend the unemployment insurance benefits, which now go to some 2.1 million Americans who have been out of work six months or longer.

The program, which costs about $30 billion a year, ensures that the long-term unemployed receive benefits for up to 47 additional weeks if they still can’t find work after they have received six months of state benefits.

Unemployed workers told their stories at a Capitol Hill press conference Tuesday with 10 congressional Democrats, including Reps. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, Lloyd Doggett, of Texas and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island. Also in attendance were organizers with the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, which brought 50 unemployed workers to the event, who then fanned out for visits with key lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“We will not leave here without extending federal unemployment insurance,” Levin said in a statement. “There’s a cliff facing two million Americans who were laid off through no fault of their own, and it is vital that we ensure that they have the assistance they need next year as they look for work.”

Though Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has been mum on the issue of unemployment benefits during his negotiations with President Barack Obama, NELP organizers actually regard his silence as a good sign and say they are confident an extension would be included in any final “cliff” deal.

If negotiators at the White House and Capitol Hill cannot come up with a budget agreement, automatic spending cuts and tax increases will take effect automatically at the end of the year. Levin has said Obama favors extending unemployment benefits as part of a budget plan.

“There is really no disagreement about the need for the continuation of the program,” said Judy Conti, NELP’s federal advocacy coordinator. “It’s just more about making sure that it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.”

Conti noted that the political dynamics of the unemployment debate have shifted, with even the conservative Heritage Foundation endorsing some form of an extension. There are “valid humanitarian reasons to extend benefits in a recession,” wrote Heritage senior policy analyst James Sherk in an issue brief earlier this year, though he argued benefits should be extended for a shorter period and to workers who had been out of work for closer to a year rather than six months.

The real danger for advocates of unemployed and low-income workers, Conti said, is that Obama and Boehner fail to reach an agreement, in which case unemployment benefits would expire automatically. Since it is the middle of winter, Conti said, even losing the benefits for a few weeks would represent a hardship for families who have already exhausted their reserves.

“There is an actual cliff for these workers,” she said. “If the program isn’t reauthorized after that, all 2.1 million people who are receiving benefits will be immediately cut off.”

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