This afternoon, Congress passed a bill to continue federal unemployment insurance (UI), along with the payroll tax cut and the “doc fix,” through the remainder of 2012. President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law later today.

In keeping with other major legislation passed by the 112th Congress, there’s plenty not to like about this bill. But it does ensure that millions of jobless workers will not see their benefits cut off in the months ahead, keeps those benefits flowing through our economy, and preserves the basic structure of the UI program. So let’s start with the positives, shall we?

The good:

  • Federal UI programs were set to expire at the beginning of March. Passing this bill in mid-February – a surprise to those of us used to the last-minute deals that have become typical in this Congress – ensures that there won’t be a lapse in UI benefits for the jobless workers and families depending on them.
  • The bill continues to provide the highest numbers of weeks of federal UI benefits in the states with the highest unemployment rates. Over time, there will be some cuts to the maximum numbers of weeks available (see “the bad”), but not nearly as much as proposed by House Republicans. States will also be able to receive additional funds to support re-employment services and work-sharing programs, among other initiatives.
  • The bill does not require workers to have a high school diploma or GED to qualify for benefits – rejecting a proposal that would have denied UI to hundreds of thousands of lower-wage workers who worked for years or even decades before they were laid off.
  • The provisions designed to offset the cost of the UI extension (“pay-fors”) do not include a proposal to prevent tax filers from claiming the refundable portion of the Child Tax Credit without a Social Security Number, a cut that would have been borne primarily by low-income working immigrant families.

The bad:

  • The maximum weeks of UI benefits available will be cut over the course of the year, even though unemployment is projected to remain above 8 percent through 2012. Depending on the state, a maximum of 89 to 99 weeks of total (state and federal) UI benefits will be available through May 2012; the maximum then drops to 79 weeks from June through August and 73 weeks from September through December.  
  • The cost of the UI and “doc fix” extensions is offset by some harmful spending cuts. The bill makes a particularly large and damaging cut to the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which the Affordable Care Act established to support programs that focus on keeping people healthy – including prevention research, health screenings and immunizations that are particularly important for women. By slashing $5 billion over ten years, the bill cuts support for the Fund by a third.
  • Another troubling pay-for is a provision requiring new federal workers to pay more of their salaries into their pension funds. If anyone has to bear the cost of maintaining crucial UI benefits, it should be millionaires and corporations – not your average federal worker.
  • The bill contains several measures allowing states to experiment with limited UI program changes, such as drug testing and wage subsidies. While the final bill includes stronger protections for workers than earlier proposals from House Republicans, it will be important to monitor state programs to ensure that they do not undermine labor standards or the core principles of the UI program. 

The boring:

  • A lot – the bill is 270 pages long! It includes provisions like a “repeal of requirement relating to time for remitting certain merchandise processing fees,” which I read so you don’t have to.

And the bottom line: While far from perfect, the bill passed to renew federal UI programs today represents a far better deal for unemployed workers than the alternative proposed by the House in December. With UI benefits in place through 2012, Congress should now call upon the wealthy and corporations to contribute their fair share and advance measures to accelerate job growth and ensure that the women and men who have been hit hardest by the economic downturn are not left behind in the recovery