State Unemployment Benefits Coverage Dropping To 73 Weeks, Then 63 Weeks
By MARA LEE
February 23, 2012
Unemployed people in Connecticut will get a maximum of 73 weeks of benefit checks, down from 99 weeks, in a change that is likely to be phased in this spring under a complex system run by the state and federal labor departments.
The reason, in large part, is that Connecticut, with 8.2 percent unemployment in the most recent report, is no longer in the hardest-hit group of states.
Ninety-nine weeks has been the full measure of government support for more than two years, but only a few thousand unemployed people in Connecticut will get it. As of this week, anyone who has been collecting unemployment benefits for fewer than 74 weeks will only be able to get 93 weeks total.
The larger change to 73 weeks is likely to come in the next three or four months, if the state's jobless rate drops further. Later in the year, the maximum benefit will drop a little more.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama signed a bill that will drop the collecting period to 63 weeks by September for states with unemployment rates below 9 percent.
If Donnie Swan doesn't find a job in the next month or so, he'll be one of the long-term unemployed caught short. Swan, 50, was laid off from a $28,000-a-year case management job at a nonprofit that ran group homes in August 2010. He has collected unemployment for about 60 weeks, because at first he didn't apply for benefits, thinking he could manage on his savings until he found a job.
It was the third time that he had been laid off in the same field in about 20 years.
He knew it was possible that extended benefits could go away before his 20-week eligibility was up, as he follows the news about changes to unemployment.
"I try not to think about it," he said.
Swan, who's single and rents a condominium in Manchester, has not been able to make ends meet on the $360 a week in benefits, so he's used up about three-quarters of the retirement savings he had. He spent $4,500 getting commercial truck driving training — he drove trucks to help pay for college 25 years ago.
On Thursday, he had two interviews for truck driving jobs. He expects that he can make $25,000 to $30,000 a year as a driver. But he finished school in December, and didn't expect it to take months to find work with his new certificate.
While U.S. unemployment fell from 8.5 percent in December to 8.3 percent in January, Connecticut's rate was at 8.2 percent in December, or about 155,000 jobless people actively looking for work. The January rate for the state has not been released.
Because of the lower state rate, Connecticut is entitled to 6 fewer weeks of coverage as of this month.
The state will lose another 20 weeks of coverage, bringing the total down to 73 weeks, because that benefit is available only in states where unemployment over the previous three months is at least 10 percent higher than it was in the same three-month period in 2009.
Because unemployment kept climbing in the early months of 2009, and because unemployment has fallen every month for the past five months, it's likely that the maximum benefit will drop from 93 weeks to 73 weeks in April or May. When that happens, people who are past week 73 of collecting benefits will only have three more weeks of checks. People who have been unemployed less time will be cut off at 73 weeks.
The rules include many conditions, so a person might not be eligible for the maximum. "What we always tell people is that every case is unique and individual," said Nancy Steffens, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor.
John Censki, 62, of Enfield, said the decline in coverage is scary. He has collected benefits for 60 weeks since he lost his last job as a part-time janitor. He will receive coverage at least through mid-May if he doesn't find a job, but beyond that, he said, "I was hoping to get 20 weeks!"
Neither he nor his wife is working right now, because she took a buyout from the state. They do have income beyond unemployment — from her pension and his Social Security disability checks.
But their mortgage takes about half of her after-tax pension. He sold his riding lawn mower, a car, his fishing equipment, his hunting equipment, his comic books and his coin collection.
There's nothing left to sell.
Censki only receives $120 a week, because his last job, as a janitor, was for no more than 22 hours a week. But that money allows him to put gas in his 1996 Ford Thunderbird, so he can drive to stores to put in applications for work.
Although unemployment has fallen significantly in Connecticut in the past six months, people like Censki and Swan aren't seeing it in their searches. Both volunteer at food banks, which they say are as busy as ever with people who never needed their services until this recession.
Swan said he doesn't believe he'll find a job in the next month. "No hope. No hope. Honestly. That doesn't mean I stop my efforts," he said. "Your confidence goes. My confidence is not there."
He said he doesn't know what he'd do without unemployment benefits and hasn't thought about whether he'd have to move in with his 77-year-old mother. Maybe he could pick up work building decks, or doing landscaping, he said.
Censki said, "I've looked for stuff that I'm qualified for, and I've looked for stuff that I'm not qualified for. And I've looked for jobs that are bagging groceries. And I'm not getting any luck."
He said he hasn't had any interviews this year. Instead, he hears: "'Sorry, we already hired somebody,' or 'We'll put you on file, we'll call you.'"
But he keeps trying. "Home Depot is hiring now; that's another lead for me to look at."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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