Leaders of West Virginia labor groups are pressing Congress to act on a bill to extend unemployment benefits before those benefits run out at the end of the year.
A report issued by the AFL-CIO says 6,900 unemployed West Virginians will lose benefits. The group's website allows unemployed workers a chance to share their stories, including Jacob Allen, who says he prays for work every night.
"As a jobless American, I pray every night for a job and then hit the pavement every morning looking for one," Allen said on the website. "If Congress doesn't extend unemployment benefits, I'll lose the last lifeline I have for myself and my family as we struggle to get through the biggest challenge of our lifetime."
According to AFL-CIO's report, young people and minorities will be the hardest hit if benefits are not extended. In West Virginia, the unemployment rate for people ages 20-24 is 19.1 percent, while the rate for African American workers is 18.9 percent. The average benefit provided by the current federal extension is $296 a week, "which covers a family's minimum expenses for survival," according to an AFL-CIO press release.
But Congress is still debating whether to extend unemployment benefits and how those benefits would be funded if they do pass. The body is also debating payroll tax extension, which would result in the average American worker taking home an additional $1,000 yearly. But can the federal government afford both in the current economy? Hilda Solis, secretary of the Department of Labor, thinks so.
"In 31 days, time will run out for millions and millions of Americans who are counting on this Congress to extend their unemployment benefits," Solis said at a press conference Nov. 30. "Some lawmakers say that we can't afford to extend unemployment benefits and the payroll tax in the current fiscal environment. I say we can't afford not to."
Kenny Perdue, president of AFL-CIO of West Virginia, said he supports extending unemployment benefits, but what the unemployed really need are jobs.
"We don't want to go to Congress and say we need to collect unemployment," Perdue said. "By God, we need jobs."
Perdue blamed partisan politics for the gridlock, saying Republicans are holding out in hopes they can elect someone from their party to the presidency next year. He said his group and others will press West Virginia's congressional delegation to support the extension.
"If they can't do that for us, we've got something for them — it's called unemployment," he said. "We will deliver on our message."
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., agreed that creating jobs could be the answer to the unemployment crisis. She said Congress needs to work toward that goal.
"The best thing we can do to help those on unemployment is to create jobs and get them back to work," she said. "It's essential, especially during the holidays when money is tight, that Congress works to foster a positive environment for economic growth."
Congress extended unemployment benefits at the beginning of 2011, an action that helped millions of unemployed. However, Elaine Harris, international representative for the Communications Workers of America, said millions more have lost their jobs since then and their benefits are set to expire soon. She said its time for a compromise.
"As workers part of the labor movement, we've always been willing to get people together to come up with a workable solution," she said. "They've got to stop this gridlock in Washington that's preventing this from happening. At the end of the year, if nothing's done, there are many people who will be hurt by this."