SACRAMENTO — Tens of thousands of Californians out of work for more than a year soon will be getting an extra 20 weeks of unemployment insurance checks, thanks to the federal economic stimulus program.
The Legislature approved the extended benefits Thursday, and processing of them is expected to get underway as early as today after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs legislation authorizing the state to receive more than $3 billion from Washington.
The money will be an immediate lifeline for 76,000 people whose benefits were set to run out April 11. By the end of the year, an estimated 394,000 more should get the extra help.
"This is a safety net. It buys me time," said Alan Feuerstein, a Santa Monica writer, who hopes to find new work before he exhausts the latest extension.
The money comes at a time when the state is reporting a 10.5% unemployment rate for February, its highest level in 26 years. About 1.95 million Californians are without jobs.
Last month, unemployment hit 10.9% in Los Angeles County, 11.9% in San Bernardino County, 12.6% in Riverside County, 9.2% in Ventura County and 7.8% in Orange County. Twenty-one of the state's 58 counties -- all rural areas of the Central Valley, desert and mountains -- have unemployment in excess of 15%.
"Accessing billions of dollars in federal unemployment aid not only will keep families in their homes, it's going to provide a quick boost to withering local economies and small businesses," said Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation.
Weekly benefits run from $65 to $475. Under the extension, the maximum period for benefits will increase to 79 weeks from 59 weeks.
This is the third benefit extension in recent years. Before the recession, the unemployed could get 26 weeks of benefits. Then-President Bush and Congress twice extended benefits last year.
People whose benefits have run out will be eligible for the extension if they were getting checks on Feb. 22.
On Thursday, lawmakers gave final approval to a pair of bills that made California eligible for the $3 billion in benefits and an additional $839 million that could be used to bolster the state's insolvent unemployment insurance fund.
Schwarzenegger praised both parties in the state Senate and Assembly for working out differences over the extension legislation and a related measure that makes it easier for low-wage workers to qualify for assistance.
"I applaud the Legislature for working across the aisle and as quickly as possible to pass this needed legislation that will help boost our economy, provide critical services for Californians, create jobs and put people back to work," he said.
Getting the two bills to the governor's desk turned out to be somewhat of a tricky proposition. Early in the process, business groups and their Republican allies in the Legislature were nervous that taking the federal money could force employers to pay higher taxes in the future.
"We wanted to make sure that California is eligible for the stimulus money, but that it's done in a way that doesn't leave us with future financial obligations that are unchecked," said Jason Schmelzer, a lobbyist for the California Chamber of Commerce.
After extensive negotiations, the chamber is satisfied that taking the federal money will be good for workers, business and the state's tax revenues.
Officials expect the influx of cash from the extension to be spent almost immediately on food, rent and other necessities. They said money should quickly circulate through local businesses.
"The most important thing we can do right now to help our economy and the day-to-day lives of Californians is to make sure those who are unemployed have the cash to pay their bills and feed their families," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).