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Thousands of West Virginians face benefits cutoff

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Nearly 11,000 West Virginia workers will lose their unemployment benefits before Christmas unless Congress passes legislation to extend them.

Nationally, more than 2 million Americans could lose unemployment benefits, which began to run out on Wednesday, this month.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said, "Last month, when we were in session, we tried to extend those unemployment benefits. It should have been noncontroversial and passed unanimously in a bipartisan fashion.

"That failed, because Republicans chose not to be bipartisan, exercising their perceived mandate from the elections to cut spending..."

"Republicans voted against extending these benefits because they said they were not paid for. At the same time, they want to extend the George Bush tax cuts for the super wealthy -- the upper 2 percent in our nation -- which will cost us $700 billion over the next 10 years."

On Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said some members of Congress propose to link continuing tax breaks for the wealthy with extending unemployment insurance. Hoyer indicated he is opposed to linking the two issues.

Hoyer believes extending unemployment insurance is a "moral imperative."

Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., had no immediate comment about their perspectives on the issue.

Nationally, the average unemployment check is $303 a week, although it varies among states.

West Virginians United for Social and Economic Justice sent a letter Nov. 12 to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., asking him to back legislation extending unemployment benefits.

"The Congressional Budget Office projects unemployment will remain at around 9.5 percent well into 2011. Thus, unemployment insurance extensions are critical not only to support millions of families, but just as important in order to keep our economy moving," the letter stated.

Gary Zuckett, director of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, said Goldman Sachs estimates that ending federal unemployment insurance programs could cut American economic growth by half a percentage point.

Those signing the letter to Manchin included: Ken Perdue, president of the state AFL-CIO; Samuel Hickman of the National Association of Social Workers; the Rev. Dennis Sparks, West Virginia Council of Churches director; Rick Wilson, American Friends Service Committee area director; and the Rev. Mel Hoover from Charleston's Unitarian Universalist Church.

The first vote cast by former Sen. Carte Goodwin, D-W.Va., was to extend unemployment benefits. As governor, Manchin appointed Goodwin to fill the seat of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., in July until the November election.

The National Employment Law Project published an analysis of potential problems if unemployment benefits are not restored, titled "Out in the Cold for the Holidays." (It is available at: http://nelp.3cdn.net/29d02a955ea0b43bbe_10m6b1blj.pdf.)

The holiday season, the NELP study pointed out, is "a time when the economy, especially the retail sector, is counting on consumer spending -- supported by unemployment benefits -- to maintain the recovery."

This year, benefits collected by nearly 9.5 million unemployed workers contributed $68 billion to our economy, according to the NELP report released in October.

Larry Matheney, secretary-treasurer of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, worries "about workers who are at the mercy of a terrible economy.

"A lot of people are debating whether we should extend tax cuts to the wealthiest of the wealthiest. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell says the major issue before Congress is to make sure Barack Obama is not re-elected.

"I think we will see wrangling, then some kind of a compromise between tax cuts for the wealthy and the unemployment issue," Matheney said.

Rahall said, "When you get to the tax-cut issue, I am willing to compromise. We will reach out in bipartisan fashion to ensure the working class gets the real tax cuts.

"But to deny unemployment benefits on the altar of cutting the deficit is cruel."

On Nov. 18, Democrats in the House tried to extend unemployment benefits during a "suspension of the rules," which required a two-thirds majority. The effort failed.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.

 


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