Job seekers & experts refute misperception that long-term UI benefits encourage unemployment

Stan Osnowitz has been out of a job since July 3rd. Since then, the 67-year-old electrician from Baltimore, Maryland has been waking up at 4 a.m. everyday – including Saturdays and Sundays – to look for work.

“I’ll tell you this: I hate being unemployed. It’s a waste of my time, my abilities,” said Osnowitz, testifying before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee in early December. “I’m capable, fully able, and eager to work. I need to work. I love to work. It’s who I am.”

It’s been a tough job search for Osnowitz, a IBEW Local 24 member. Construction jobs are few and far between during the wintertime, but he is hopeful that things will pick up in the spring.

“I’m actively pursuing work through my union and elsewhere,” he said. “I’m looking every day for hopes of getting something sooner because I hate not working.”

Read more: State-by-state numbers of long-term unemployed workers facing cut-off from federal emergency unemployment insurance assistance in 2014

Osnowitz is one of the millions of Americans who are relying on unemployment insurance benefits to make ends meet while they continue look for work. For Osnowitz, the UI benefits have helped him “scrape by week-to-week”.

Osnowitz’s state unemployment benefits will end in early January after 26 weeks. Unfortunately for him, Congress adjourned for the holidays without voting to extend the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation [EUC] program, which means that long-term unemployed workers like Osnowitz will lose the vital assistance to stay out of poverty. About 1.3 million unemployed workers will be cut off just days after Christmas, and another 3.6 million will lose access if the program is not renewed in 2014.

Some conservative lawmakers have balked at extending the federal unemployment emergency compensation program because they claimed the EUC benefits encourage people to stay unemployed.

Such claims, according to Christine Owens, Executive Director of the National Employment Law Project, are unfounded and reflect a lack of basic understanding of how unemployment insurance works.

Owens explained that a person can qualify to receive the unemployment benefits only if they are actively looking for work. In fact, she pointed out that the unemployment benefits actually keeps the long-term unemployed in the labor market, instead of giving up looking for work.

“It causes them to be more aggressive in their job search, and it gives the resources they need to stay afloat while they’re looking for jobs,” said Owens. “If we want to reduce unemployment, sure, cut off this program. But we will reduce unemployment then by having more people completely drop out of the labor force and that is not the recipe for a prosperous economy that works for all of us.”

And according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers, keeping these long-term unemployed workers in the labor market “increases the number who eventually do find jobs.”

Lisa Floyd, a sales and service professional from Huntington, West Virginia, finally landed a job after 8 months of relentless searching. Her state unemployment insurance benefits ran out after 6 months but she was able to stay afloat for the additional 2 months she needed with the help of the federal emergency unemployment compensation benefits.

She said lawmakers need to “get rid of that wrong impression that people who are on long-term unemployment are coasting along, singing the song, and they’re all laying in front of the TV watching Jerry Springer and eating junk food.”

“That is not what we’re doing,” said Floyd. “We’re out there everyday…The majority of Americans want to work. We are not the exception. We are the rule. We want to work. Understand that. Please.”

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