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Locals react to federal unemployment cuts

DeKalb resident Maria Lathrop works part time at Northern Illinois University, where she is allowed a certain amount of hours and when that limit is reached Lathrop receives unemployment benefits.
DeKalb resident Maria Lathrop works part time at Northern Illinois University, where she is allowed a certain amount of hours and when that limit is reached Lathrop receives unemployment benefits.

DeKALB – Maria Lathrop lives paycheck to paycheck. And sometimes, that check is an unemployment check.

The 38-year-old mother works as a telephone surveyor at Northern Illinois University’s Public Opinion Laboratory, but her job caps her at 900 hours a year.

After she reaches her 900 hours, she goes on unemployment and receives $158 a week in benefits. It’s a smaller amount than the $9.50-an-hour job with NIU, and it becomes much harder for her to pay rent.

She fears what would happen if her finances took another hit.

“I would have a hard time if I didn’t have unemployment and if I didn’t have a job,” Lathrop said. “I wouldn’t know how to pay my bills. I wouldn’t have a place. I don’t want to lose my car from the insurance. I’m kind of depending on a job or unemployment to help me out.”

About 80,000 long-term unemployed people across Illinois experienced a hit to their finances Monday, when federal unemployment benefits were cut 16.8 percent as part of widespread federal spending cuts commonly referred to as the sequester. The federal program, which lasts for 26 weeks – or about 6 months – after state unemployment benefits expire, could be discontinued at the end of the year.

The federal program started in June 2008 as the nation lurched through the Great Recession, but its future is uncertain after lawmakers almost discontinued it Dec. 29 and then reduced the benefits this week. It’s unclear if the benefits will increase Sept. 30.

The sequestration had federal agencies take a 10 percent cut, but the percentage cut for unemployment was bigger because the cuts are being applied over a four-month period from June 10 to Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year. For the average Illinois beneficiary, that’s a $51 cut to their weekly benefit, but it adds up to about $69.3 million for all beneficiaries across the state.

Zach Hunter, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Channahon, said House Republicans have voted to end the sequestration but have been blocked by Democrats in the White House and Senate.

“Congressman Kinzinger will continue to fight for policies that support a healthy economy in which fewer families will need to rely on unemployment insurance to get by,” Hunter said.

More locally, Mark Pietrowski, chair of the DeKalb County Democratic Party, said he thinks Congress should extend unemployment benefits into 2014.

“To me, it’s not a political issue, it’s a moral issue,” Pietrowski said. “We need to look out for those who need the help they most. Regardless if they’re Democrat or Republican, they need something to help them get through to their next employment [opportunity].”

State Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Hinckley, said the federal government’s approach on unemployment needs to be two-fold. The government should be helping people, but the people should not be reliant on those taxpayer dollars.

“We have to make sure we’re providing a safety net, but at the same time, helping people get back into the labor market,” Pritchard said. “That’s where I think there needs to be some feedback and modifications.”

The uncertainty has left state officials preparing for several outcomes, said Greg Rivara, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

“We have gotten no direction from [the Department of Labor] ... as to the possibility of sequestration continuing into the next fiscal year,” Rivara said. “We are preparing for both eventualities.”

Rhonda Burke, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Department of Labor, said they still are awaiting guidance from Congress on this issue, as well as on the future of federal unemployment benefits.

Under the current system, an Illinois resident can receive about 52 weeks of unemployment benefits, if he or she is eligible after a job loss. The first 26 weeks are funded by the state. The last 26 weeks are through a federally funded program called Emergency Unemployment Compensation.

Congress has extended Emergency Unemployment Compensation numerous times, but the current iteration of the program is set to expire Jan. 1. After that recipients will no longer receive federal unemployment benefits, regardless of how long they have been in the program.

In DeKalb, Lathrop hasn’t been unemployed long enough to qualify for the federal program, but she supports continuing it. She worries about her job security. Her call center also was scheduled to close, but has since been partnered with a different university department.

She is earning an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Kishwaukee College, but she doesn’t know what she’s going to do.

“Especially with the degree I have,” she said, “I don’t know what I could actually do because it’s (a general degree).”

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