Labor officials in Vermont say hundreds of people could lose their unemployment benefits if Congress fails to avert the so-called fiscal cliff. The federal unemployment insurance program that has been providing additional weeks of benefits to the long-term unemployed is set to expire.
It’s 8 a.m. at the career resource center in Burlington. The morning crowd streams in. Some carry Starbucks coffee, others carry smartphones. Many clutch their resumes and log on to computers to look for work.
Heidi Benoit, 31, has been unemployed since she was laid off from a retail job. She says her $280 weekly check – $245 after taxes – is extremely important.
"That is the only thing that I have to depend on right now," Benoit says. "It goes towards rent, and groceries and car insurance, gas in the car."
Benoit has an associate’s degree in business. She says when she graduated from Champlain College 10 years ago she was optimistic about her future. "The dream was to have a career, not dead-end jobs. Just to have a career that offered benefits," Benoit says.
Since then, Benoit has worked a series of retail jobs, hoping to pay off her student debt. She stuffs her hands in her pockets and shrugs as she says her expectations have diminished.
"A job that pays around $12 an hour is the dream, whether there are benefits included or not," she says. "That part of the dream has been taken right out."
Unemployment insurance typically lasts 26 weeks. Throughout the recession, congressional funding has extended benefits. But those extensions will end if Congress and the administration go over the fiscal cliff.
And the economic situation for many of the 1,400 Vermonters on the extended program could become a lot more urgent.
"There really is no good time to phase it out," says Tracy Phillips, Director of Vermont’s Unemployment Insurance and Wages Division. "There will always be people that are impacted at that phase out period."
Phillips says even if Congress cuts long-term unemployment benefits, the state will make sure people in Vermont receive some kind of assistance – from brushing up on their resume to learning more about the labor market.
"Our career resource centers are planning on continuing to conduct orientation for emergency benefits even beyond the end date in the event that there is a retroactive extension that Congress ultimately authorizes," she says.
More than 12 million Americans are still unemployed, and Congressman Peter Welch has pledged to extend unemployment benefits. But Welch says any extension seems unlikely considering the stalemate between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.
"In a better Congress we would just do things straight up and get it done right away, but I’m not sure that the Speaker is in a position to get his side to be able to do what I think the Speaker knows has to be done," Welch says.
As conversations at the federal level drag on, the state says it will notify those who’ve struggled to find work later this week that their benefits will soon be slashed.