WASHINGTON (AP) — Unemployment benefits will be restored for millions of Americans under the tax-cut measure President Barack Obama signed into law Friday. Sylvia Kittrell of Orlando, Fla., isn’t among them.
A social worker unemployed for more than two years, she’s one of hundreds of thousands who will get no help from the new law because they’ve already used up all the benefits available to them.
“I have no money,” Kittrell says. “Everything is gone.”
In the 24 states with unemployment rates of at least 8.5 percent, the unemployed can receive benefits for up to 99 weeks. In other states, they get less than 99 weeks — in some cases as few as 60 weeks, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
The new law restores, for 13 more months, the 99-week maximum. But it provides no further benefits to people who have reached the limit in their state. Those who have exhausted all benefits are sometimes known as “99ers,” even though the duration of their benefits varies by state.
The legislation renews federal programs that extend benefits beyond the 26 weeks states always provide. Those federal programs had expired Nov. 30.
The Labor Department says it doesn’t know how many Americans have used up all their unemployment benefits. But the number reaches well into the hundreds of thousands.
In California, 5,000 unemployed people use up their extended benefits each week. And 274,185 Californians will have exhausted 99 weeks of benefits by year’s end.
In Florida, 105,011 people have run out of benefits; in Nevada, 27,325. In New York, 125,284 out-of-work people have stopped receiving unemployment checks because they’ve used up their aid.
The New Yorkers who’ve exhausted unemployment benefits tend to be older than those still receiving unemployment: Thirty percent are 55 or older, compared with less than 22 percent of those still receiving benefits.
And more than 48 percent of New Yorkers no longer receiving benefits are women. That compares with 43 percent of those receiving unemployment aid.
Many more people could be joining the 99ers. Job losses peaked in January 2009. Those who lost jobs then, at the depths of the recession, will soon lose their benefits if they haven’t found work or run out of aid already. The number of people who applied for benefits for the first time peaked at 651,000 in the week that ended March 28, 2009 — 94 weeks ago.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., in August introduced legislation that would help the 99ers by tacking on 20 more weeks of benefits in states with unemployment of 7.5 percent or more. But her bill has gone nowhere in a Congress that’s been reluctant to spend more federal money to jolt the economy.
“They have to be taken care of,” says a supporter, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. “They are next to be homeless. They are the people who have hit the wall through no fault of their own.”
They’re people like Kittrell, who ran out of unemployment benefits over the summer. Without her $224 weekly unemployment check, Kittrell has been getting by on food stamps and occasional contributions from her 84-year-old mother and grown son.
She says her job search has been fruitless. Potential employers keep telling her she’s overqualified. Her savings are long gone. She’s about to be evicted from her apartment.
“It’s the worst situation a human being can be in,” says Kittrell, who turned 58 on Thursday. “What am I to do? Keep praying. I keep praying for a miracle.”
Among those nearing the end of their 99-week maximum in benefits is Jean Wilson, 55, an engineer from Valrico, Fla., who lost her $58,000-a-year job in February 2009. Since then, she’s collected about $544 in unemployment benefits every two weeks. That isn’t even enough to cover her $1,200-a-month mortgage.
Having run out of savings, Wilson is now draining her retirement account.
In a state with 12 percent unemployment, Wilson says, “It’s not like I’m not looking. There’s no jobs out there.”
Associated Press writer Tamara Lush contributed to this report from St. Petersburg, Fla.