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Thousands in state squeezed as clock runs out on jobless aid

John Nocella, 64, visited a Woburn career center yesterday. His unemployment benefits are slated to run out this week. John Nocella, 64, visited a Woburn career center yesterday. His unemployment benefits are slated to run out this week. (Joanne Rathe/ Globe Staff)
By Robert Gavin
Globe Staff / June 23, 2010

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John Nocella checks the job listings at state career centers almost every day. He’s sent out at least 150 resumes. But it has been more than a year of searching since he lost his sales job, and Nocella is about to run out of time.

He will cash his last unemployment check this week unless the US Senate breaks a deadlock and approves legislation to extend emergency jobless benefits through November.

“Unless you’ve been in this position, you don’t realize how hard it is,’’ said Nocella, 64, of Stoneham. “The bills never disappear. People like me are in a desperate mode. We don’t know where we are going to end up.’’

Nocella is among about 10,000 long-term unemployed workers who this week alone will lose unemployment benefits in Massachusetts, as concerns about the burgeoning federal deficit continue to tie up the bill.

Since Congress allowed the federal extension program to expire about three weeks ago, an estimated 30,000 laid-off workers in Massachusetts — and 900,000 across the country — have already lost benefits, according to state labor officials and the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group in Washington.

In Massachusetts, the Patrick administration is directing workers whose benefits have expired to other social service programs, including: food stamps; emergency cash assistance for families with children, the elderly, and disabled; and aid for veterans. Some workers might qualify for such programs, which have varying eligibility requirements. Others might not.

Constance P. Harris, 58 and single, said it’s unlikely she will be eligible for such programs if her benefits run out this week. Since her management job at a state social service agency was eliminated by budget cuts in December, she has depended on unemployment to pay the mortgage on her two-bedroom condominium in Malden.

Now she worries she will lose her home along with her benefits.

“I’m desperately looking, but I need this unemployment until I find a job,’’ Harris said. “All I’ve ever done is work. The feds bailed out the big banks, but they won’t bail us out.’’

The federal stimulus package of 2009 and subsequent bills had provided extra weeks of benefits after the standard payments of 26 weeks passed. In Massachusetts, laid-off workers could get 99 weeks of benefits.

The stalemate in the Senate comes as the labor market is improving, but unemployment, just under 10 percent nationally, remains near post-World War II highs. Some 15 million Americans, including more than 300,000 in Massachusetts, are still out of work.

Long-term unemployment, meanwhile, has skyrocketed to record levels, according to Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies. The number of workers who have been jobless for at least a year has increased about sixfold since the recession began, to more than 100,000 in Massachusetts and more than 4 million nationally.

“It’s unbearable that we have people exhausting their benefits and Congress hasn’t acted,’’ said Joanne Goldstein, Massachusetts secretary of Labor and Workforce Development.

The House passed extension legislation shortly before Memorial Day, but a Republican filibuster, supported by Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown as well as a handful of Democrats, has kept Senate leaders from bringing the bill to a vote. Republicans are insisting that Congress offset the cost of the bill with other spending cuts, and not add to annual federal deficits that are now running more than $1 trillion.

“We need to stop the deficit spending and start offsetting the cost of worthy programs by cutting wasteful spending in other places,’’ Brown said in a statement. “This requires elected leaders to make hard choices, but our country’s economic stability requires that we get our fiscal house in order.’’

Democrats, however, argue that it’s not unusual to run large deficits in difficult economic times, and government spending will lead to a quicker recovery and bring down the deficit faster.

“Where was this fiscal austerity when [Republicans] were turning record surpluses into record deficits under George Bush?’’ Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry said in statement. “Now when working people need help, vital relief is being delayed. Bottom line is, any plan to cut funding will hurt the most vulnerable people across our state.’’

Al Chou, 42, of Cambridge, said he understands the arguments being made by both Republicans and Democrats. But with his unemployment benefits expected to run out in about two weeks, Chou said that political leaders “also have to see it from the unemployed point of view.’’

Laid off from an information technology job about 10 months ago, Chou visits four or five state career centers regularly and frequently attends career fairs. In the past month alone, he estimated, he submitted about 20 resumes. But for each of his prospective jobs, there are 50 to 100 candidates.

Chou is the father of two. With his wife working just part time as a bank teller, Chou worries about how his family will get by if he loses jobless benefits.

“I would never have imagined myself to be in this position,’’ Chou said. “With an extension, at least you have your dignity. It means I’m trying, that it’s not just me.’’

Robert Gavin can be reached at rgavin@globe.com.

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