The tax-cut bill President Barack Obama is expected to sign Friday renews benefits for millions of unemployed people. But it does nothing for hundreds of thousands who have been out of work so long they've used up all benefits available to them.
In the 25 states with unemployment of at least 8.5 percent, people can receive up to 99 weeks in aid. In other states, the unemployed get less than 99 weeks — in some cases just 60 weeks, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
The bill keeps 99 weeks as the maximum anyone can receive. It doesn't provide any more weeks of 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 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 exhausted their 99 weeks of aid.
New York's 99ers tend to be older than those still receiving unemployment: Thirty percent percent of the state's 99ers are 55 or older, compared with less than 22 percent of those still receiving benefits. And more than 48 percent of New York 99ers 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 Lee Jackson, 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 Sylvia Kittrell of Orlando, Fla., a former social worker 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."
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