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Jobless benefit cutoff hurting many in region

Thousands of Minnesotans and North Dakotans are abruptly without unemployment benefits today at the year-end halt of a federal supplemental program. They are among 800,000 jobless workers cut off because Congress failed to pass an extension befor...

Thousands of Minnesotans and North Dakotans are abruptly without unemployment benefits today at the year-end halt of a federal supplemental program.

They are among 800,000 jobless workers cut off because Congress failed to pass an extension before adjourning for the year, according to officials in Bismarck and St. Paul.

Jay Mousa, research director for the Minnesota Department of Economic Security in St. Paul, said 13,500 Minnesotans will see their federal benefits end today.

John Graham, director of centralized services for Job Service North Dakota, said letters explaining the cutoff of federal Temporary Extended Unemployment Compensation went out earlier this month to unemployed workers.

Those workers received federal benefits under the program because their state benefits had been exhausted, Graham said. In North Dakota, state benefits were paid to unemployed workers for between 12 and 26 weeks, depending on the case.

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The federal money kicked in for up to 13 weeks after the state benefits ran their course, according to Mousa and Graham said.

"We had a significant number of Minnesotans qualify for that extension this year," Mousa said.

"The job market is weak, so we're seeing more and more people exhausting their state benefits before finding a job," he said.

Toughest hit in Minnesota are those who lost jobs in the manufacturing and transportation sectors, Mousa said. Many transportation workers are jobless because of cutbacks in the airline industry, he added.

The average weekly benefit in Minnesota under the federal extension was $297, he said.

In North Dakota, Graham said, the unemployed workers predominantly are from the construction industry, which traditionally experiences a slowdown in winter.

There's little holiday hope for the unemployed workers, and the 95,000 each week thereafter who start losing their state benefits. Congress won't reconvene until Jan. 7.

Even with swift passage of another extension, there will be a gap in income for many families, Mousa said.

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"Regrettably, the House Republican leadership turned their backs on these families and refused to act, and the administration chose not to intervene before Congress adjourned," Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle said Friday. "This inaction by Republicans was unconscionable then and it is even more so now."

The Democratic-led Senate approved a comprehensive benefits extension costing anywhere from $2 billion to $5 billion that would have covered people affected by today's cutoff and another 1 million who already had exhausted all benefits. The House passed a more modest $900 million plan of five extra weeks for workers in a few states with high unemployment rates. But the two sides failed to resolve their differences.

President Bush, after weeks of criticism from Democrats, ended his silence on the issue in his radio address last week and said extending benefits for the unemployed should be the "first order of business" for the new Congress. But he failed to say how many people should be covered and for how long, or which plan he favors.

Democrats and groups supporting an extension complained again Friday that Bush's refusal to press Congress was to blame for Saturday's cutoffs.

"The president's announcement was too little, too late for the unemployed," said Maurice Emsellem, public policy director for the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for the jobless.

GOP leaders claimed the government could not afford the $5 billion price tag on the Senate plan. They also said the economy is improving. The nation's unemployment rate climbed to 6 percent last month, while in previous recessions, the rate was much higher -- 10.8 percent in 1983 and 7.8 percent in 1992.

But supporters of an extension argue that it would help boost the economy by giving money to the people who need it most.

Readers can reach Forum Business Editor Gerry Gilmour at (701) 241-5560

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