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When unemployment extensions end, a movement rises: the 99ers

The growing ranks of the long-term jobless are clamoring for more jobless benefits. Will anyone listen?

By Margaret Price/ correspondent / November 4, 2010

Marion Glandorf, unemployed for two years, wears a sign asking for work at a rally by ’99ers,’ people who have run out of jobless benefits

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Out of full-time work since 2006, LaDona King says she's nearly penniless, having used up her retirement savings, exhausted unemployment benefits, and tapped relatives for as much help as possible. Before long, she may have to move in with one of her two sisters.

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But Ms. King, of Escondido, Calif., is far from giving up.

Even as she spends 40 to 55 hours a week looking for work, she's founded a swelling national grass-roots movement to aid people like her: the so-called 99ers. Named for the maximum number of weeks the jobless can now collect unemployment insurance (UI), these long-term jobless are clamoring for faster job creation and extended jobless benefits.

In the short term, many activist 99ers are pushing for passage of the Americans Want to Work Act, a Senate bill that would provide 20 additional weeks – a so-called Tier V – of unemployment insurance. The 99ers, who often find each other through social media, also talk about organizing around other related issues. Although their ranks are growing, they face an uphill battle persuading Congress to act.

"There are superpolitical head winds now for any advocacy for the unemployed," says Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project, a research and advocacy group in New York .

Out of work since January 2008, Gregg Rosen of Bucks County, Pa., has had only two job interviews. "Both times, I was told I was overqualified," says the former marketing executive for a large Philadelphia-based teleservices firm. The longer he's out of work, the less desirable employers find him. Mr. Rosen exhausted his UI benefits at the end of March and is now seeing his savings evaporate, he says.

By contrast, Rosen's activism is expanding. In March, he created an informational website, tier5.webs.com. In September, he cofounded the American 99ers' Union, a collection of 18 groups, representing some 100,000 people, focused on getting the Americans Want to Work bill passed, Rosen says.

Once Congress reconvenes after the Nov. 2 elections, such legislation will face resistance, many experts predict. For one thing, the current maximum UI coverage of 99 weeks is already 34 weeks longer than during the 1974-75 recession, previously the longest stretch of coverage. For another, Congress seems disinclined to boost spending on social programs, especially if Republicans make gains in the elections. Some observers say Congress may have trouble renewing even the existing extensions of unemployment insurance when they expire Nov. 30.

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