By: Anna McClure, FellowPosted on December 1, 2011 Issues: Economic Justice

As we mentioned earlier this week, Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI) hosted a press conference yesterday highlighting the stories of the workers who depend on federal unemployment insurance benefits (UI) and calling for passage of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act. Even though it seems obvious to me that extending UI is, as Rep. Levin put it, “not a subject for horse-trading,” some Members of Congress seem willing to play a game of chicken with these critical benefits. One wonders if these Members have ever listened to the stories of the women and men who depend on UI, like I was honored to yesterday:

Jill, from Pennsylvania, was a teacher for 16 years until June, when, like so many other women in public sector jobs, she was laid off because of state budget cuts. Jill has three young children at home and a husband who is also an educator. Jill was the first in her family to go to college, and she went on to receive a master’s degree, but even with her education and years of experience, she has struggled to find a job that provides enough wages or benefits to support her family. Jill has even gone back to school to get an administrative certificate in the hopes that she can find a job that pays a sufficient salary. During this time of uncertainty, UI has helped keep her family afloat, but now she fears what will happen to them if her federal UI benefits are cut off next year.

David, from Baltimore, worked at a home lending firm until the fallout from the mortgage crisis forced his firm to shut down in April. David did everything right – he worked hard, saved money, and kept his credit card debt low. He has searched all over for jobs, but has not been able to find one. David became eligible for federal extended UI benefits in October. UI has made a big difference for his family by allowing him to keep up with the mortgage and car payments, and pay the bills. Without continued federal UI benefits, all of this would be in jeopardy.

Vincent, from Pittsburgh, was a driver for the public transit system until budget cuts forced the layoffs of 300 transportation workers in March. Vincent has a five-year-old daughter at home and a son in college. He served in the U.S. Army for eight years on active duty, and for two years in the reserves. He has held jobs consistently since he was twelve years old, but the hardest job he has ever had is finding a new one in this weak economy. He searches all day, every day for work – not just in the transportation field, but also in the nonprofit sector, drawing on his prior experience in youth advocacy and counseling. Vincent also has enrolled in a computer skills program to improve his job prospects. He began receiving UI benefits in April, and now receives federal extended benefits. As his only source of income, UI has been essential for Vincent to pay the rent and utility bills and buy food every month. Without federal UI benefits, he fears he and his family would be homeless within just a few months.

These powerful stories leave no room for doubt that in my mind that, in the words of Rep. Hoyer (D-MD), “there is no more important piece of legislation” to pass than a UI extension. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) promised that there will be “no Christmas for Congress” if such a bill is not passed. I absolutely agree that Congress shouldn’t go home until they extend UI, but I hope Senator Harkin doesn’t have to make good on that promise, so that families like Jill’s, David’s, and Vincent’s don’t spend their holidays wondering whether the benefits they depend on to survive will be taken away.

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