Unemployment insurance is not a handout — it's a hand up — for workers who have lost their jobs, stressed U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL, 11) and jobless Illinois residents at a roundtable discussion Friday.
Those at the discussion in Joliet, hosted by Teamsters Local 179, said families in the state and across the country will face crushing economic setbacks if Congress does not end its standoff over an extension on unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed.
"This should not be a partisan issue. In the past, it has not been," Foster said. "There's something about today's Tea Party-dominated Republicans in Congress that just simply reject anything that could be construed as even a handout to families that are struggling."
Two pieces of legislation in the Senate that would have extended the benefits failed to clear procedural roadblocks on Tuesday, and the GOP-led House hasn't taken up a bill.
On December 28, emergency unemployment insurance for those who have been jobless for longer than 26 weeks expired. As a result of the expiration, about 1.3 million Americans lost their benefits, including more than 80,000 people in Illinois, with 4,400 of those people living in Will County where Friday's discussion was held.
Willowbrook resident Ann Schmidt, 52, is one of those impacted individuals. Schmidt had been collecting unemployment benefits since June after leaving her job due a minor leg injury that later turned into a debilitating condition making it difficult for her to stand.
Schmidt, who worked in the administrative health care field, does not qualify for disability benefits, and her unemployment insurance expired last month.
"I have zero income now," Schmidt said with tears welling up in her eyes. "I do have leads on jobs. I have an excellent resume, and I'm a highly-qualified professional, but ... it's frightening. It's very frightening."
Foster is a co-sponsor of a measure in the House, the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2013, which would renew the now-expired federal program that provides the emergency unemployment benefits for an additional year.
"Unfortunately the Republicans in Congress won't even let us vote on it," Foster said. "But I think that this issue is too important to ignore, and I will continue to fight to ask for an extension."
Congress left for recess this Friday and will return to work January 27, a day before President Barack Obama is set to give his State of the Union address. Foster and other federal lawmakers are using the time off to raise awareness about individuals imperiled by the loss of unemployment benefits.
Failing to extend unemployment insurance not only hurts the long-term unemployed, it's also bad economic policy, Foster stressed. When jobless individuals receive their unemployment benefits, that money goes right back into the local economy, the congressman said.
"This is a real issue and a huge source of frustration to me that this is being blocked by the Republicans in Congress," Foster added. "Charlie Dent, a reasonable Republican from New Jersey, is the only member of the Republican House who has presented a concrete plan for dealing with this. Unfortunately, we've heard absolutely nothing on this front from the Republicans from Illinois."
If the Senate acts first to approve an extension, it could pressure the House to at least bring legislation up for a vote, Foster said. He urged those at the discussion to reach out to U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), who has not yet gotten behind the extension.
Don Moran, Will County Board member and a representative for the Sheet Metal Workers Local 265, stressed how important the extension would be for local construction and other trade workers. Many of his union members began experiencing unemployment, which they are still dealing with today, after single-family home construction screeched to a halt in 2007. Years later, 30 percent of the union's membership is still unemployed. A number of the union's jobless individuals have been "chronically" unemployed and have not been able to find a long-term job since the 2008 financial crisis, Moran said.
"We've had hundreds of members, literally hundreds of members, that have come into our offices that have lost their homes, lost their families, that are just totally devastated by what's happened in the economy," he said. "To kick these guys to the curb now ... is a terrible disservice to our public, and something needs to be done about it."
Two unemployed carpenters from Shorewood, Matt Mejia, 32, and Tom Tuton, 33, each said they have not constructed a home since 2006. Since then, they've mostly done industrial work available at oil refineries and power plants in the Will County area.
But more recently, they haven't been able to find work in that industry either.
"Without the unemployment insurance, my family would be in real bad shape," said Tuton, who has received unemployment benefits since November. "I don't think we'd be able to make it."
Tuton and the other three jobless individuals at the discussion stressed that they would rather be working than collecting unemployment benefits.
"I don't want to be on unemployment," Tuton stressed. "It's not, 'Hey, great! I'm on unemployment. It's free money.' No, it's helping me survive until I get back to work."