WASHINGTON — Nearly 3,000 Massachusetts residents have exhausted unemployment benefits since the end of the year, and hundreds more are losing them each week, as efforts to restore the federal extensions remain stalled in Congress.
Lawmakers will try again to revive the program, which expired Dec. 28, after they return to Washington this week. Despite clearing a key procedural hurdle in the Democrat-controlled Senate early in January, legislation to reauthorize the federal emergency benefits has bogged down over how to pay for the costs, estimated at several billion dollars.
Proposals to extend the program first for 11 months, then three months each failed in the Senate in January. And such proposals will probably face an even tougher time in the Republican-controlled House.
Both Democrats and Republicans have generally supported of the idea of extending federal benefits to struggling job seekers, but they differ on whether and where to cut other federal spending to pay for it. Still, Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said he believes an agreement may yet be reached.
“The reason [conservatives] may bend and break is this is a fairly simple policy proposal that people mostly support,” Burtless said. “If they’re getting a bad reputation on a number of things, why add this one?”
Congress first passed emergency benefits to kick in after workers exhausted state unemployment payments at the beginning of the last recession in 2008. In Massachusetts, where the state normally limits benefits to 30 weeks, unemployed workers were able to collect for up to 99 weeks, just under two years, during the worst of the recession. As the economy improved, the maximum length of time declined to 73 weeks.
Congress reauthorized the program several times, but failed to include another extension when lawmakers agreed to a bipartisan budget compromise at the end of last year. The program expired Dec. 28, affecting about 58,000 Massachusetts residents and 1.3 million people nationally who were collecting the federal benefits.
Among those affected is Richard McDonald, 53, who worked for U-Haul for six years, four as a mechanic, before he was laid off in September 2012. He estimated that he had about 10 weeks of benefits left when he was cut off after Congress allowed the program to expire.
McDonald, the father of two, said he spends hours each day searching for work and has filled out close to 100 applications for any jobs related to automotive work and transportation. Unemployment benefits, which he supplemented by doing odd jobs, helped save him from homelessness. But now, unless he finds a job soon, he fears he may end up in a shelter.
“They don’t understand,” McDonald said of Congress. “If they lived in this environment for a month and see how it is to live without help, help you earned and paid for before, maybe they would.”
Although the unemployment rate has declined significantly from its recent peak, it remains historically high, 7 percent in Massachusetts in December. Nationally, the unemployment rate fell to 6.7 percent in December, but much of that decline was driven by workers giving up job searches and dropping out of the labor force.
Only those actively seeking work are counted as unemployed by the Labor Department. The unemployment rate would climb above 13 percent if workers who have given up job searching and those working part time because they cannot find full-time jobs are included.
John Drew, president of Action for Boston Community Development, an antipoverty agency, said he has seen an increase in the need for services since the federal unemployment benefits expired. He said nearly 22,000 people have applied for heating assistance in the last four months, an increase of about 10 percent from last year.
“It’s like taking all the income out of your house,” Drew said.
Lisa Broaudes lost her job as a patient access coordinator at a Boston hospital in April, leading to the longest period of unemployment she has faced in her life. As she searched for work without success, she exhausted her state benefits after six months and moved on to the federal extensions. Then she lost those when Congress let the program expire.
“How in the world do you cut unemployment for people who don’t ask for handouts, who spent our whole lives working, after having our jobs taken from us through no fault of our own?” she said. “It’s put me in a struggle that I’ve never been through before. All I want to do is work.”