U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier Wednesday called on her colleagues in Congress to extend unemployment benefits, arguing that many people who want to work are struggling to survive in a tough job market and deserve help.
Unemployment benefits have been available for a maximum of 63 weeks in California in recent years, as politicians issue extensions to those affected by the economic downturn. Without an extension from Congress, however, they are only available for 26 weeks, according to Speier, D-San Mateo.
Congress has typically extended unemployment benefits during times when unemployment exceeds 7 percent, but efforts to pass an extension have been blocked by Republicans several times now since 2011, Speier said.
Speier said the lack of action by Congress, which caused 1.3 million Americans to lose their benefits on Dec. 28, 2013, and will cause another 1.9 million to lose benefits in the first six months of 2014, will cost the economy 240,000 jobs this year. Unemployment benefits generate jobs by putting money directly back into the economy, Speier said.
Speier met with several job seekers Wednesday in San Francisco who lost their unemployment insurance in December.
Many of those who spoke with Speier said they had been looking for work for a year or more and had run through their savings in an effort to stay afloat. The loss of unemployment benefits meant they were struggling to eat, to pay rent, and to support their children.
“We are better than this as a country and these people deserve our support,” Speier said.
Job seekers in their 50s and 60s said that while they were highly qualified they had met with age discrimination in job interviews.
Many Bay Area employers will tell older applicants that they are looking for someone “hip” and high energy, said Debbie Wales, 55, who lost her position as a contractor around a year ago.
They will ask applicants telling questions such as whether they would mind working for someone half their age, Wales said.
“They’re always very kind, and then they’ll say “Can you fit into the office culture?” or “You’re overqualified,” said Wales. “How can anybody ever be overqualified for a job?”
Nancy Guzan, who worked for VWR International in Brisbane until the company moved to another city and laid off its local workforce, said she has been invited to numerous interviews based on her experience.
“But then I walk through the door and I can see it in their face,” she said.
“I’m in this place where I’m too young to retire and nobody wants me,” said Guzan, who said she will run out of savings by March at the latest and feared she could end up on the street if unemployment benefits are not restored.
Speier said she was disturbed by the reports of widespread age discrimination against older workers, who typically take longer on average to find a job than their younger counterparts.
Unemployment is also high among recent graduates, and many younger workers with jobs are considered underemployed, meaning they are doing work below the level of their skill level and training in order to stay afloat and pay off students loans, Speier said.
Marc Sutter, 30, said he had also heard the “overqualified” line, and always told employers he was happy to take a step backwards because he was impressed with the company and where it was going.
“Overqualified is just an excuse,” Sutter said.
Formerly a high-flyer with a six-figure income, he said he had been initially confident in his ability to get another job and survive on savings and did not even apply for unemployment at first because he thought others needed it more.
“I have a lot of pride,” he said.
With unemployment benefits abruptly cut and his savings depleted, Sutter said he now fears he will be unable to make his rent or car payment, and could also lose the sizable deposit he paid on his apartment in better times.
Unemployment benefits helped 2.5 million Americans in 2012, including 600,000 children, Speier said.
In California, 213,793 people lost unemployment insurance on Dec. 28, 2013, and another 325,800 are expected to lose it in the first six months of 2014.