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Federal Program Expires Sunday : 325,000 Jobless Facing End of Extended Benefits

March 30, 1985|LEE MAY | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Borys Stachowski of Cleveland used to go to work at a brewery, where he made $11 an hour as a laborer. Now he goes to rallies, urging Congress to keep the federal program that is supplying him with extended unemployment benefits.

And if Congress lets him down--a likely prospect--he will join a growing army of jobless persons who are falling outside the safety net of government unemployment compensation.

As of February, 5.3 million unemployed persons--the bulk of the nation's 8.4 million jobless--collect no benefits.

"When the benefits are gone," said Rep. Don J. Pease (D-Ohio), "the next step is welfare." For most intact families, the only available federal welfare program is food stamps, which are typically worth substantially less than unemployment compensation, although state and local governments may provide other assistance.

At immediate stake are the 325,000 persons who, like Stachowski, are now receiving Federal Supplemental Compensation. That program supports an extra 8 to 14 weeks of unemployment benefits--depending on each state's unemployment rate--on top of the 26 weeks provided by the basic unemployment compensation program.

In California, where the program lasts for 10 weeks, 40,000 jobless persons are enrolled.

But unless Congress resurrects the program, which expires Sunday night, Stachowski will receive no more government checks. And, while he would rather have a job, the 34-year-old laborer said at a recent protest rally here, he finds that the $292 he receives from the government every two weeks, combined with a minimum-wage salary from his wife, is "just enough to pay the bills."

For a rapidly growing number of the unemployed, federal benefits have already quit helping them pay their bills.

In 1984, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an advocate of social programs, only 34% of the jobless received unemployment benefits in an average month, the lowest level ever. In 1975, by contrast, 75% of the jobless received compensation.

Experts have identified at least four causes for what the center calls a "severe contraction" of the government's effort on behalf of the jobless during the last decade:

--A tightening of federal and state eligibility standards, beginning in the late 1970s. States began more vigorously enforcing requirements that recipients search for work, according to Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and more persons were disqualified because they had quit their jobs or been fired for misconduct.

Budget Cuts Blamed

--President Reagan's 1981 budget cuts. In that year, Congress severely tightened state eligibility for the joint federal-state extended benefits program, which provides an extra three months of unemployment compensation after the first six months in states where the unemployment rate is sufficiently high and workers tend to be out of a job for sufficiently long periods. Now, only West Virginia and Alaska qualify under that program.

--A rising number of new entrants in the work force--particularly women and young persons. The Congressional Budget Office says a growing share of workers have not been on the job long enough to qualify for unemployment benefits.

--A growing number of long-term jobless persons who have exhausted their unemployment benefits. In 1985, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 849,000 workers had been unemployed for more than a year, compared to only 225,000 in 1980.

Congress Is Last Resort

After the first six months of joblessness, most of the long-term unemployed have only the Federal Supplemental Compensation program to rely on now that the additional three months of extended benefits are available only in West Virginia and Alaska. But now, unless Congress rescues it, supplemental compensation, too, will be gone.

Rescue efforts are under way, although observers say that they are unlikely to succeed. "We're getting to the point where we're playing chicken now," said a House committee staff member.

House, Senate to Act

On Tuesday, the House Ways and Means Committee will consider a three-month extension of the program, and the Senate Finance Committee will take up a proposal to maintain supplemental benefits for those already receiving them but to allow no new recipients.

The most powerful opponent of the extended federal benefits is Reagan, who said at his most recent news conference that the program, enacted during the hard times of 1982, addressed "the emergency of the recession." But now the economy is generating 300,000 new jobs a month, he said, and "we don't believe that we should continue with this program indefinitely."

That view does not sell well with organized labor. Robert McGlotten, a lobbyist with the AFL-CIO, said: "The economic recovery that looks so bright to some is invisible or non-existent in countless communities and many states throughout the country."

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