The end of 2013 also marks the end of benefits for 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans.
Checks from the federal government providing aid to those unemployed for more than 30 weeks stopped for nearly 1,000 people in Berkshire County this week. John Barrett is the director of Berkshire Works, an organization that provides career-driven services and unemployment assistance.
“All of a sudden you’re being told that your unemployment check will no longer be coming and you’re already facing a lot of problems to start with,” Barrett said. “These are people that lost their jobs not through their own fault, but because of the downturn in the economy and other reasons. So it’s going to be very difficult for them to handle the situation.”
The budget signed by President Obama last week prevents a government shutdown, but it also ended the emergency benefits started under President George W. Bush. According to the Associated Press, the benefits have cost the federal government $225 billion since 2008. Joanne Goldstein is the secretary of Labor and Workforce Development for Massachusetts. She says about 58,000 people in the commonwealth have lost benefits, but some may be eligible to receive state aid.
“There is some number of those individuals who will be able to revert back to, reopen or establish a new state claim and therefore may be entitled to benefits at that level,” explained Goldstein.
Chris Wojcik is the communications manager for The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.
“These are the same folks that have probably already seen their SNAP benefits cut on November 1 with the reduction that took place for anybody on SNAP,” Wojcik said. “So now paired with the reduction in unemployment, that could really put a burden on families that are already struggling in western Massachusetts and are going to need more help to make sure that their families are fed and to be able to put food on the table.”
As of November, Berkshire County’s unemployment rate was 6.8 percent, just above the state level of 6.6. Barrett says placing people in jobs is particularly difficult in the county because its old manufacturing economy is still adapting to the 21st century.
“Even though there are 1,600 open jobs out there, it’s making sure that people have the right skills to fill those jobs,” Barrett explained. “I think that’s where our concentration has been more than anything else.”
The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts distributed a record eight million pounds of food to more than 300 member agencies in the four western counties of the state in its fiscal 2013 year. Wojcik says the food bank has seen the usual increase in donations during the holiday season. But those donations typically drop off after the New Year.
“We’re not really sure of the impact,” Wojcik said. “We know it’s going to increase, but there is really no telling of how much of an impact it’s going to have. I think the next couple of months, especially through the winter months, are really going to be telling.”
Barrett says his organization deals with more than 400 people a week regarding unemployment benefits.
“I think the big thing that Congress has to understand is that we are on the front lines,” Barrett said. “We see the faces of the people that are coming in. The fear that they’re not going to be able to meet that mortgage payment, make that rent payment and that they’re not going to be able to survive. It’s a very difficult time for these people.”
Members of Congress have proposed bills to temporarily extend the benefits. Speaking with WAMC News in December, Massachusetts U.S. Senator Edward Markey says he will work with fellow democrats to address the issue.
“I’m going to be working with other democrats to ensure that within legislation that passes in the near future that we extend those unemployment benefits,” Markey said. “We have to create a bridge for families so that they are not devastated by this extended reign of unemployment.”