HARVEY, Ill. — Standing in the cold outside the local unemployment office, 44-year-old Margaret Riley waited for her ride this morning, having just applied for benefits at the crowded Illinois Department of Employment Security in this south suburb of Chicago.
Aware that for more than 750,000 Americans federal unemployment benefits run out on Saturday, Ms. Riley considered herself one of the lucky ones. She shook her head at the difficulty many have finding work in a still-slumping economy and the realities of life for the unemployed, some of whom were about to have their only source of income — an unemployment check — run out.
Margaret Riley, Friday outside the unemployment office in the Chicago suburb of Harvey, Ill., considered the thousands about to lose unemployment benefits. "How are you supposed to pay your bills?" she asked.
(NYT Photo/Scott Olson)
"It ain't funny because a lot of people depend on it," said Ms. Riley, a certified nursing assistant who applied for benefits because her hours at work were sharply reduced. "It's really bad. That's messed up. How are you supposed to pay your bills and stuff?"
About 750,000 Americans will exhaust their benefits, at least temporarily, on Saturday because of a partisan standoff in Congress over the size and scope of an extension.
Laid-off workers typically are provided with 26 weeks of unemployment benefits from the state and the federal government has routinely extended unemployment benefits in harsh economic times.
But an extension authorized by Congress earlier this year expires on Dec. 28 and the House and Senate failed to reach an agreement over continuing benefits before adjourning in late November.
President Bush declared in a radio address this month that extending unemployment benefits should be the "first priority" when Congress convenes on Jan. 7, making some resolution more likely. But he did not detail a plan, and White House officials said today that he had yet to make up his mind.
Democratic lawmakers have been hammering the administration on the issue for months, and Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic leader, criticized Congressional Republicans and Mr. Bush today.
"Regrettably, the House Republican leadership turned their backs on these families and refused to act, and the administration chose not to intervene before Congress adjourned," Mr. Daschle said. "This inaction by Republicans was unconscionable then, and it is even more so now."
Miles away from Washington, in the standing-room-only unemployment office in Harvey, questions and concerns over the fate of hundreds of thousands of laid-off Americans swirled on an icy winter day.
In Illinois alone, about 42,000 unemployed workers will lose benefits on Saturday, said Bern Colleran, a spokesman for the state's Department of Employment Security.
Alisa Foster, a postal worker who applied for unemployment in Harvey, said: "It's going to be kind of hard for families that actually need the extension. I mean, what are they going to do? Are they going to re-institute welfare?"
Ms. Foster said, "I think the Bush administration should do something to push" a little harder to get an extension of benefits through Congress.
The House, which is controlled by Republicans, had wanted a five-week extension that would be limited to three Northwestern states with high unemployment rates: Alaska, Oregon and Washington. The Senate package, drawn up when Democrats were in control, was more expensive and would have provided for a 12-week extension with no limit on the number of states.
Both plans died when the House adjourned after refusing to take up the Senate bill. Since then, Republicans have enlarged their proposal to include more states, but Democrats still want to cover the entire nation.
Representative Phil English, Republican of Pennsylvania, who has proposed a bill to extend benefits, warned today that Congressional feuding could leave in a lurch many workers who should qualify for benefits. "If this gets protracted, there is a very real danger that some people will fall between the cracks," Mr. English said in a telephone interview.
In Harvey, some of the unemployed, like William Woods, 49, who applied for educational benefits, were not convinced that was not happening already.
"It puts a lot of people that I was talking with earlier under the gun," Mr. Woods said, noting that the conversation this morning among laid-off workers, waiting to be seen inside the unemployment office, was filled with anxiety. "They don't know what they're going to do right now."
"It couldn't have come at a worse time," said Mr. Woods, who was laid off in October from his $40,000-a-year job at a candy factory after 25 years. "The economy is slow."
For the nation, the unemployment rate in November was 6 percent, equaling its highest rate since mid-1994, and representing about 8.5 million people. In Illinois, the unemployment rate was 6.7 percent, representing 416,200 people.
Still, for some, the issue of extending benefits is not so clear-cut.
"There's a lot of mixed emotions," said Marion Marganski, 47, a maintenance mechanic who has been unemployed for two years and who has exhausted his benefits.
If you extend all these benefits, Mr. Marganski wanted to know, who is going to pay for it?
"You can't depend on the government all the time," he said, though later admitting that he had received benefits under a federal extension.
Like Ms. Riley, Vincent Canzone, 27, considers himself one of the fortunate.
A laid-off construction worker, Mr. Canzone said he needed unemployment benefits only to tide him over until his next job, which begins in about a week, though some of his friends are not so lucky.
"It's hard right now," Mr. Canzone said. "Most of my friends went to college and they all got laid off from these big firms and they lost a lot of money. It's bad for some people. A lot of people need this income."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company