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11:34AM ET
December 24, 2002

Unemployment in New York City
by Beth Fertig

NEW YORK, NY (2002-12-24) On December 28th, unemployment benefits will run out for more than 60 thousand New Yorkers. Congress authorized an extension for job seekers who had exhausted their regular benefits - which are typically 26 weeks. But lawmakers failed to approve another extension before the end of the year. Recently, President Bush urged them to act.

BUSH : "When our legislators return to the capital I ask them to make the extension of unemployment benefits a first order of business."

But those words of comfort did NOT explain who would qualify for additional benefits, or for how long. As WNYC's Beth Fertig reports, that's left unemployed New Yorkers confused and anxious.

For Michelle Wiley, Christmas presents were a bit of a stretch this year.

WILEY: My Christmas gifts!

The 33 year old single mother lost her sales job at Loehman's last spring.
But she was still determined to buy a few presents for her five year old son - and for the children of two friends helping her out through this difficult year.

WILEY: This is Chicken Dance Elmo SONG: Elmo wants to be a chicken, Elmo wants to be a duck..

Wiley was able to afford these small luxuries found on EBAY because she's still getting 390 dollars a week in unemployment. Her checks would have run out by now, if not for the temporary extension approved by Congress - granting job seekers an additional 13 weeks. But with days to go before that extension runs out, Wiley's holiday spirit is sagging. She gets child support from her son's father. But rent on her 1 bedroom Bronx apartment is almost 700 dollars a month.

WILEY: When the benefits run out I will hopefully have this month's and next month's rent paid. If I have to I think I will have to go and get 2 part time jobs, just to compensate for what my losses were.

But Wileys' been looking for a full time job all summer and fall. And she's had no success with temporary agencies.

WILEY: Right now they're busy, they're busy but they haven't gotten enough work to give out to people not already registered.

Michelle Wiley is one of 62 thousand New Yorkers who will lose their benefits in just a few days. In urging Congress to pass an extension when lawmakers return to session in January, President Bush said the benefits should be made retroactive. But it's not clear who would qualify. Those who were still receiving extended benefits on December 28th? Or those who had already exhausted them?

In New York alone, 182 thousand people have used up both their regular and extended benefits since June. Jonathan Rosen heads the New York Unemployment Project. He's unimpressed with the president's call for action.

ROSEN: It's too little and too late. Tens of thousands of New York families and families across this country have now spent weeks, months, without benefits. Without jobs. Cashing in their 401Ks, selling assets, living off their credit cards, filing for bankruptcy.

With a national unemployment rate of 6 percent - and 8 percent in New York City - he says there's good reason to authorize another extension. There's also plenty of precedent.

ROSEN: In the early 90s president Bush's father signed 5 extensions of unemployment benefits during the 1990s recession. This is the first time ever this issue has been caught up in partisan politics.

The House and Senate couldn't agree on the terms for another extension before breaking for recess. Senate Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, are now pushing to cover everyone who's exhausted their benefits. But the Republicans are more divided. Especially in the House, which supported a shorter and less costly extension. Republican Congressman Jack Quinn of Buffalo is urging his colleagues to be more generous. He thinks Northeast Republicans from states with high unemployment rates can make that case.

QUINN: I'm not interested in taking a band aid approach to this. We know that there's a problem with the economy nationally. And we know that there are people hurting. And in my opinion, I think we ought to do a broader approach than a narrower approach and cover as many people as need to be covered.

Within New York's Congressional delegation, the majority seem to support a broad extension - including most Republicans. Many of them signed a letter Quinn wrote to the House Speaker this fall. However, Staten Island Republican Vito Fossella did not sign the letter. Aides did not return repeated phone calls asking for a clarification of the Congressman's position.

Gonela Baker is one person who's desperate for Congress to pass a broad extension. She used up her benefits in July and she's been struggling ever since because she still can't find work.

BAKER: I have a lot of canned foods because thank God for our union, local 6. They give us canned stuff, cereal. But this is my freezer. As you can see when I was working it didn't look like that. FERTIG: What does it look like now? BAKER: It's empty. There's no meat stuff.

Baker was a room attendant at the Marriott Hotel in the World Trade Center. The Federal Emergency Management Agency pays the mortgage on her tidy house in East New York.

BAKER: I live checking bills, bills, bills, bills.

But bills are piling up on her kitchen table. And she has a son at Brown University - which is demanding 12 thousand dollars in tuition. The Panamanian immigrant doesn't understand why lawmakers are even debating whether to extend unemployment benefits.

BAKER: This is not something that I caused on myself. I've been in this country 22 years and worked every one of those years. You know, I paid a lot of money in taxes. And I don't want to say it's owed to me. But I'm entitled to it.

The question of who's entitled to collect their benefits and for how much longer will be taken up after Congress returns to work on January 7th. For WNYC I'm Beth Fertig.

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