WASHINGTON — Xernna Nieves, her four children and her sister, Sara, have for the past eight months lived in a single, cramped hotel room just outside of Atlanta.
Nieves, her sister and the two youngest children, both girls, sleep four to a bed. The boys, 15 and 12, sleep on the floor. In such close quarters, "We're getting on each others' nerves," Nieves said.
After nearly two years without a job, about the only thing that Nieves, 41, a former accounting worker, can count on is her unemployment insurance check; a $330-a-week lifeline that pays the rent, fills her gas tank and feeds her family when their $300-a-month food-stamp benefit runs out in mid month.
Barring any further action from Congress, however, Nieves' "lifeline" will be cut at the end of June.
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That's when she's slated to join hundreds of thousands of jobless workers nationwide who've exhausted their maximum 99 weeks of unemployment benefits and face life with no meaningful income.
"What am I going to do then? That's going to be the end of the line for me," Nieves said, adding that she has no personal belongings she can sell for cash. "I got rid of all my stuff, so I don't own anything. All I have is the clothes on me and my kids' backs."
While the economy created 290,000 new jobs in April, unemployment jumped to 9.9 percent as 805,000 people rejoined the labor force to renew their job search. Sadly though, 6.7 million Americans, nearly 46 percent of the nation's unemployed, have been jobless for 27 weeks or more. Another 1.2 million are still discouraged and no longer looking.
Most states provide up to 26 weeks of jobless benefits for qualified workers. Then the worst recession since the Great Depression forced Congress to step in and pay for extended coverage. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia now provide a maximum of 99 weeks, while other states offer from 60 to 93 weeks.
The beefed-up benefits are unprecedented in the history of the unemployment insurance program and have helped millions such as Nieves survive the recession and keep roofs over their heads.
With a projected $1.5 trillion federal deficit looming this year, though, lawmakers from both parties are resisting costly and politically unpopular appeals to extend benefits.
While that could change quickly in an election year, Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., who supported previous extensions, told Bloomberg News Service last week that 99 weeks is enough.
That didn't sit well with Mignon Veasley-Fields, a 61-year-old former charter school administrator from Los Angeles.
"Ninety-nine weeks is sufficient? I paid into unemployment for almost 40 years of my life. How dare he (Baucus) say that. This is what hurts," Veasley-Fields said, fighting back tears. "He has no clue what it's like to have to spend money on groceries and then pray that the utility company will give you an extension so that you'll have lights."
When she hits her 99-week limit at the end of the month, Veasley-Fields will join more than 100,000 "99ers" in California who've also maxed out their benefits.
Last week, she and other jobless Americans faxed letters urging President Barack Obama and members of Congress to extend unemployment insurance beyond 99 weeks. The national "Mayday S.O.S. Fax Attack" was coordinated by Donalee King, an unemployed "99er" from San Diego who's become an Internet hero among the long-term unemployed.
King's website — Jobless Unite — offers a chat room for the unemployed, an online radio program, tips on how to fax lawmakers and a "hall of shame" for politicians, pundits and journalists who don't support the benefits beyond 99 weeks.
"The bottom line is we're desperate, and we need it," King said. "The longer you're unemployed, the less chance you have of getting hired because your skills are deteriorating."
After he hit his benefit limit in March, Keith Ragan, a construction worker in Gibsonton, Fla., received his final unemployment check for $275 on April Fool's Day. Ragan, 46, was building homes before he was laid off in November 2007, just before the economy began its slide into recession.
Recently, he was fortunate to get 15 hours of day labor. "Pushing a broom and picking up some wood" paid enough to pay his electricity bill, but with his home in foreclosure, each day is an adventure.
Without unemployment insurance, Ragan depends on his family for support. He can't get food stamps because he's a homeowner — at least for now.
"I could have a deputy pull up to my doorstep right now and tell me, 'Hey Bud, you've got three days to get out,'" he said about what would be his summary eviction. A few more months of unemployment benefits would help Ragan with his $780 monthly mortgage.
Economist Peter Morici of the University of Maryland School of Business said that extending benefits can make unemployment attractive for some, particularly those who want to continue their education or those in households with a high-income person who's working.
"If you have some other assets and you want to do something else other than work, it can encourage you to stay unemployed for a while," Morici said.
As of March, some 6.5 million Americans, or 44 percent of the nation's unemployed, have been jobless for 27 weeks or more. Another million people have given up on looking for jobs.
Harvard University economist Lawrence Katz said the nation is 11 million jobs short of where it should be population-wise. To catch up, 15 million new jobs are needed during the next four years.
Although the economy created 230,000 new jobs in March, Nieves of Atlanta isn't buying the happy talk that the economy is turning the corner. She doesn't see it.
"It's not true. Where are all these jobs?" she asked in frustration. "I still go online everyday and send out weekly e-mails to see if they have anything, but it's dry. It's really dry."
Her experience isn't unique. A new survey by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University found that of 1,202 people who were unemployed in August, two of three, or 67 percent, were still unemployed in March. While 21 percent, about one in five, were employed, 12 percent had stopped looking for work.
If her benefits are cut off, Nieves said she'd probably stay with relatives in New York, where the social services for single mothers are better. "I really try not to worry about that, because it gives me major migraines," she said.
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