Unemployment benefits recipients await word from Congress on extension

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Thousands of Black, middle-class families are holding their breath as they wait to see if Congress approves legislation that would extend unemployment benefits for another 13 months.

Thousands of Black, middle-class families are holding their breath as they wait to see if Congress approves legislation that would extend unemployment benefits for another 13 months.

Until then families must continue to figure out how to make ends meet in the wake of extended benefits that expired on Dec. 4.

The political gridlock in Washington, D.C. ultimately will disrupt the way of life for many families, said Lamika Obichere, 33, who has been collecting unemployment benefits since losing her job September 2009 as a program coordinator for the University of Illinois-Chicago on the West Side. She worked there nearly five years earning $3,000 a month but now receives $2,000 a month in unemployment.

“I have never been out of work so collecting unemployment is new to me,” she said.

Within the past 12 months the wife and mother of two small children has not had one job interview.

However, she is encouraged about her job prospects after recently completing a job readiness workshop with the Chicago Urban League, one of the many free services offered by the non-profit organization on the South Side.

Congress previously extended unemployment benefits, which allowed eligible individuals to collect benefits up to 99 weeks.

“Without an extension we estimate that benefits for more than 100,000 Illinois residents will stop beginning this month,” Greg Rivara, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Employment Security, told the Defender. “However, the standard 26-weeks of state benefits will not be affected.”

A reduction in income forced Obichere to make some tough decisions including depleting her savings and retirement accounts and transferring her 7-year-old son from a private to a public elementary school. And as a last resort, she is prepared to let sell her home in south suburban South Holland.

But she is hardly alone.

Clifford Ovunwo, 32, lost his job as an accountant for the city of Chicago July 2009. He had worked there for one year after working 10 years as a business manager for the Chicago Public Schools. As an accountant Ovunwo netted $3,000 a month but receives just $1,400 a month now in unemployment despite holding bachelor and master degrees in accounting.

“I am looking for anything because I need a job,” he told the Defender. “I have five kids (ages 27, 25, 24, 21, and 15) who live with me so I have to find something.”

And if being unemployed was not depressing enough his wife recently was laid off from her nursing job.

“I don’t know what she will get from unemployment but I know it won’t be much,” he said.

As it stands now, his wife would only receive 26-weeks of state benefits unless legislation proposed Monday by President Barack Obama is approved by Congress. He added that he is also worried about losing his South Side home now that his wife lost her job.

Once the IDES determines a person is eligible to receive unemployment benefits everyone could receive up to 26-weeks but the amount will vary.

In Illinois, unemployment benefits are funded by unemployment insurance paid for by employers and not taxpayers or through any special tax that employees pay while working, Rivara added.

A person could receive up to $531 a week in benefits, depending on such things as their marital status, earnings while employed and dependents, such as a child or unemployed spouse.

“The IDES goes back five quarters to get four, full quarters of employment to determine the level of benefits a person is eligible for,” said Rivara. “Regardless what happens in Congress, I encourage people to continue certifying for their benefits. This way if an extension is granted those eligible could possibly receive retroactive benefits.”

The state’s unemployment rate in October, the last month data was available, was 9.8 percent while it was 9.6 percent nationally. But in November the national unemployment rate edged up to 9.8 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Copyright 2010 Chicago Defender

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