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Benefits debate has jobless on edge

2 million will get far less if Congress doesn’t act

Ruben Marcial 52, an unemployed assembly worker who lives in Mission Hill, has received $250 a week since February and barely gets by. Ruben Marcial 52, an unemployed assembly worker who lives in Mission Hill, has received $250 a week since February and barely gets by. (ESSDRAS M. SUAREZ/GLOBE STAFF)
By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / November 29, 2011
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Sarrah Hasten needed to keep working to make ends meet even after she passed traditional retirement age and began collecting Social Security. Searching for a job since being laid off a year ago, she is struggling to find work and fighting perceptions that, at 72, she may be too old.

Without her $308-a-week unemployment check to help pay for medical insurance, food, and heating oil, she fears she might have to sell her Newton home of 40 years.

“It makes a huge difference in my life,’’ Hasten said of the benefits. “Without them I’d be up a creek.’’

Hasten has reason to worry. If Congress does not reauthorize a program to extend unemployment benefits by the end of the year, nearly 2 million Americans, including 34,000 in Massachusetts, could have their benefits slashed to 26 weeks from 99.

Congress has voted to extend long-term benefits nine times since the recession began in 2008, but each vote has become more politically contentious as the economy struggles and the national debt mounts.

The Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development estimated that an additional 5,000 people a week in the state would exhaust their benefits between February and June if Congress does not act. In Massachusetts, where the economy has improved somewhat faster than in the United States as a whole, benefits would shrink to 30 weeks from 90.

The potential cutbacks come as long-term unemployment remains at record levels; according to the Labor Department, more than 40 percent of the nation’s unemployed in October were people who had been out of work 27 weeks or longer.

Senator John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said through a spokeswoman that he supports extending the benefits and “is hopeful Republicans will join him to enact legislation’’ before the extension program expires in a month.

“This is the last thing families in our state should have to deal with during the holiday season,’’ said Kerry’s spokeswoman, Whitney Smith.

Republican Senator Scott Brown said yesterday that he was cosponsoring a bill to extend the benefits another year, as long as much of the cost is offset by other budget reductions determined by the federal Office of Management and Budget.

“During this prolonged economic downturn, unemployment insurance is a critical lifeline for the 14 million Americans out of work,’’ he said in a statement, adding that it should be “extended in a fiscally responsible, bipartisan way.’’

James Sherk, a labor economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said many legislators do not want to see the cost of benefits add to the nation’s mounting debt. Many also feel that the benefits have grown too generous and should be cut back.

Nearly half of all states currently offer unemployment benefits that can last nearly two years. Sherk said benefits should be pared back to a reasonable level as a way to encourage people to take jobs they would have otherwise shunned because they were unfamiliar, paid less, or were below their qualifications. Such a move would also lower the unemployment rate by one-half a percent, he said.

“Workers have in mind the certain job they’re looking for, the location, the kind of work,’’ Sherk said. “As you have longer and more generous benefits, workers are more selective.’’

Rick McHugh, a senior staff attorney for New York nonprofit National Employment Law Project, which supports extending the benefits, said withdrawing government money could hurt the nation’s limping economy.

But when it comes to providing the benefits, McHugh said: “Economics isn’t everything.’’

Families rely on the money to put food on their tables, clothe their children, and make the rent and mortgage payments that keep them in their homes.

“There is a basic level of humanity that needs to be considered as well,’’ McHugh said.

For Ruben Marcial 52, an unemployed assembly worker who lives in the Mission Hill section of Boston, the benefits allow him to get by - but just barely.

He said he has received $250 a week since February, when he was laid off, and the money helps him pay $75 a week child support, eat, and pay a modest rent to live in his 80-year-old mother’s small apartment. He said he also tries to help his eldest daughter, who is attending college in Tampa, when he can.

Marcial said he has applied for dozens of jobs since he was laid off from a manufacturing plant that made rifle scopes in South Boston last February. He said it used to be easy to find manufacturing work through temp agencies.

When offers do come, they are often at plants in places like Lawrence or Avon. Without a car, he cannot get to them.

The prospect of seeing his benefits cut off soon adds to his frustration.

“I can’t tell you what I’m going to do; I don’t know,’’ he said. “I’m already pretty much homeless.’’

Even the long-term unemployed who have nearly exhausted their benefits and extensions continue to struggle to find work.

Dorchester resident Wendy Brown-Small, 62, said she has been searching for a job ever since she was laid off from a call center nearly two years ago. She said her last unemployment check, for $350, comes this week.

“I’ve been to the career centers and I’ve been on the Internet searching for jobs,’’ she said. “I’ve been to job fair after job fair. I put my name in for anything and everything.’’

Brown-Small said she owns her home and has taken in a tenant to help pay her bills. “At least I’m not indigent,’’ she said.

Others, like Juanita Rodgers, who was laid off from her $10-an-hour job three months ago as a cook in an retirement home, struggle to pay for the basics.

She said she receives $229 a week in unemployment benefits but gave up her apartment because she could no longer afford it and moved in with a 74-year-old friend in Roxbury. She said she is also reckoning with overdue credit card bills and the idea that she may have to apply for food stamps.

On a recent afternoon at the Boston Career Link job center at Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries in Roxbury, her hopelessness was tinged with desperation as she looked up jobs. The day yielded one possibility: a food-service job slated to begin in several months.

“People tell you to find a job,’’ she said. “Well, where are they?’’

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at

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