Unemployment benefits debate reaches midstate

Macon woman gets last unemployment check; congressional deadlock persists


Leshanda Rice of Macon is part of an unfortunate group of people — an estimated 212,500 jobless across the country who have had their unemployment benefits threatened because of a deadlocked Congress.

The deadlock has people such as Rice, 24, and the agencies that help them powerless and near financial ruin.

Rice, who lost her job at Quality Trans in Macon in December 2009, said she knew something was wrong when she received her unemployment check in the mail Thursday.

“They usually give you two different checks and the checks come on different days,” she said. After getting both checks in one envelope, Rice said she called the Georgia Department of Labor.

The person on the other end of the phone told her that would be her last check because Congress has not signed off on giving extensions.

“It was only $200 a week, but that was allowing us to take care of what we needed to take care of,” said Rice.

While the money is expected to be eventually paid retroactively, Congress’ unpredictability is proving disconcerting.

“Lost in this discussion is that these are people who became unemployed through no fault of their own and they are searching for jobs in the worst job market in years,” said Michael Thurmond, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Labor.

In Georgia, 5,000 people have been without benefits coverage, and state officials estimate that for every week the Senate stalemate continues, 5,000 more will lose coverage.

“I don’t know why (Congress) acts like people can afford to have their benefits held up,” Rice said.

“They already know our circumstance so why are they doing this? Our livelihood was depending on this money until I receive another check.”

Rice lives with her husband, Gregory, a songwriter and music producer at Sound Clinik on Napier Avenue.

“He only gets paid if someone request him to perform or they come in and buy songs from him,” Rice said about her husband’s job. “And if that doesn’t happen, we don’t have any money.

“Right now, I’m praying they get this thing taken care of so I don’t have to find another place to live. I can’t afford for this to happen. Congress needs to be putting the people first,” Rice said.

The jobless aid is part of a $9.2 billion package that would fund a host of government programs for about a month, including payments to doctors who help Medicare patients, the national flood insurance program and health insurance assistance for jobless people.

Lawmakers also are considering a measure that would extend key programs through the end of 2010.

Many of the programs expired at the end of last month, and authority for aiding some people out of work for an extended period of time expired Monday.

Congress left Washington on March 26 for a 16-day spring recess that is scheduled to end Monday.

The House of Representatives approved the funding last month, but it stalled in the Senate as Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., insisted the bill be paid for.

“Any person with a thimble full of common sense could identify $9.2 billion of waste in our more than $3.5 trillion budget,” he said.

“Yet Congress finds this task so painful they would rather leave town and let certain unemployment benefits expire.”

Coburn’s objection has triggered a fierce, classic debate over what’s more crucial: Funding the programs as emergencies, which has been done routinely, or finding offsetting cuts or revenues.

Democrats, and some Republicans, readily concede the deficit must be cut, but not with unemployment at 9.7 percent last month.

“Unemployment compensation is not a sweet deal,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon. “You don’t get paid a great deal with unemployment, but maybe just enough to get by so your house isn’t one more foreclosed property.”

It’s widely expected that no one will ultimately lose benefits, because they are expected to be funded retroactively, but thousands are unlikely to get checks this week.

As for Rice, she’ll continue her job search every day after dropping her husband off at work. She said Thursday she wasn’t sure if she should spend all of her last benefits check to pay bills, or just pay some of the bills and let the others lapse to hold onto some money if tight times become even tighter.

McClatchy Washington Bureau staff writers David Lightman, Halimah Abdullah and David Goldstein contributed to this report.