Some 4,900 long-term unemployed in Rhode Island are losing their extra jobless benefits as the state continues to grapple with the worst unemployment rate in the nation.
The federal program that since 2008 has provided extra benefits to those who have exhausted their 26 weeks of regular unemployment is due to end Saturday. Up to 21 additional weeks have been available.
In a conference call with reporters Thursday, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed called the federal emergency unemployment compensation program a lifeline and said that if it's not continued, people will be "thrown off a cliff" in a still-difficult job market.
The Rhode Island Democrat has introduced legislation, along with Republican Sen. Dean Heller, of Nevada, to extend the program for three months. But the $6.5 billion extension isn't paid for, and passage of the bill is far from certain. Extending the program for all of 2014 would cost up to $25 billion.
Congress is on break. A test vote in the Senate is scheduled for Jan. 6.
Reed said the average emergency benefit payout in Rhode Island is about $350 a month.
"This is just enough to keep people going. In some cases, barely enough to keep people going: paying the rent, paying for fuel, going to the Dollar Store," he said.
Reed argued the program helps the economy overall and said there will be more layoffs if it's not extended because there will be less spending by the long-term unemployed.
Regular benefits for another 8,900 Rhode Islanders are slated to lapse by June, according to his office.
Nationally, 1.3 million people are losing their benefits. After the program ends, those claiming the assistance now won't be able to collect additional payments even if they haven't reached the maximum for which they are eligible.
Rhode Island's 9 percent unemployment rate has it tied with Nevada for the worst in the U.S.
Newport resident Deborah Barrett was laid off from her management job in accounting in February. Speaking on the conference call, the 57-year-old said she has sent out hundreds of resumes and had about 10 interviews. She said she doesn't know how she'll make ends meet without the extra assistance.
"It's petrifying," she said. "Unfortunately, I don't believe my story is very unique."
The state Department of Labor and Training has already sent out notifications about the program's expiration. It urges residents to visit the state's career centers in Providence, South Kingstown, West Warwick and Woonsocket for help finding work.
The department has also provided information to residents about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formally known as food stamps, and the United Way's 2-1-1 call center, which helps those struggling to meet basic needs.