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Jobless benefits bill hits skids

ADDISON COUNTY — A months-long push to extend emergency unemployment benefits to out-of-work Americans stalled in Congress late last week after a united GOP caucus kept Senate Democrats short of the 60 votes needed to push their bill through.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office estimated that 1.2 million Americans are already experiencing a cutoff in unemployment benefits because of the Republican filibuster, including an estimated 121 workers in Vermont. Another 860 Vermonters face a cutoff in benefits on July 10 unless Congress extends benefits.
At that point, 716 will lose coverage after having exhausted both traditional and extended unemployment assistance totaling as many as 86 weeks of benefits.
That’s frustrating news for Monkton resident Velissa Harris, who has been unemployed since March after the elder home care facility at which she worked changed ownership. But she hasn’t received unemployment benefits since June 11, and says employees at the Vermont Department of Labor told her the filibuster in Congress has derailed any additional funding.
Harris hopes that Vermonters who are employed can remember that even if the debate over unemployment benefits is a big picture discussion, there are individuals suffering while Congress knocks heads.
“We’re not unemployed because we want to be,” she said. “A lot of us are doing what we can to be not unemployed.”
The jobless benefits bill, which has already passed the House of Representatives, would have extended benefits through the end of November for those who have exhausted their initial unemployment benefits, which typically run about 26 weeks but vary by state. The bill also would have provided financial assistance to state governments, funded a summer jobs program, and extended dozens of tax breaks sought by business lobbyists.
Republicans noted that it also could have added as much as $33 billion to the national deficit over the next decade.
With Democrats blaming the GOP’s refusal to compromise for the bill’s demise, and Republicans balking at the legislation’s hefty cost, Democrats on Thursday abandoned for the time being the effort to shove the extended unemployment subsidies through.
Harris wrote a letter to Sanders’ office, and recently sent an e-mail to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt, in the hopes of bringing a more personal story to the bigger political debate.
“I just wanted them to know how it’s affecting people, that there are people back here who aren’t receiving any pay,” Harris said.
Sanders, speaking for the Senate floor last Tuesday, said that out-of-work Vermonters are struggling, and he chided opponents for blocking the bill on the argument that the support would add to the national deficit.
“I understand we have a large deficit and that we have a large national debt, but what I don’t understand is that when it comes to tax breaks for billionaires, my word, we don’t have to pay for that,” the Vermont independent quipped.
In Vermont, unemployment numbers are slowly falling. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for the state in May (the latest numbers available) show that 6.2 percent of Vermonters are out of work, down two-tenths of a percent from April and down 1.1 percent from a year ago.
In Middlebury, one of the state’s 17 labor market areas, unemployment in May stood at 5.8 percent, with 1,050 workers out of jobs. Unemployment ranged across the state from a low in Hartford of 3.9 percent to an 8-percent high in Newport.
Harris said she’s trying to make the most of a difficult situation. When she filed for unemployment, she learned about an opportunity to enroll in retraining courses, and is now taking classes online to become certified in medical coding and insurance billing.
She was encouraged to pursue certification in the field because of her previous experience in health care, and she’d noticed several hospitals and physicians’ offices in the area advertising for medical coders. It’s a complicated, detail-oriented job, but the starting pay is high enough that Harris, a widow, would be able to support herself.
Getting by on unemployment has been tight. Until her checks stopped, she was receiving $351 a week. If she was careful, she said, she could make the money stretch, though she makes the occasional run to the food shelf to get by.
“I already have roommates here to help me pay my mortgage, and I don’t know what I’m going to do without money to pay my part of the expenses,” Harris said.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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