Lower state unemployment rates are usually a cause for celebration. But in as many as 15 states, that good news also has triggered the loss of unemployment benefits for thousands of workers starting next month.
More than 135,000 workers risk losing jobless benefits next month, according to the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group. These workers have already exhausted their state benefits and will no longer qualify for extended jobless benefits that Congress approved through the end of 2012.
Extended benefits will end the week of April 7 for Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri,Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin, because the job picture improved in those states, state and federal officials said.
The Indiana Department of Workforce Development has already announced that the last benefit payments for Hoosiers receiving extended benefits will be made on April 16.
Extended benefits also are expected to expire the week of April 21 in Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland and Washington state, according to NELP, an advocacy group based in New York City that tracks when these benefits end and calculates how many people may be affected.
South Carolina has one of the country's highest unemployment rates at 9.3 percent, higher than the national average of 8.3 percent, but still made the list because of the complicated way the trigger is calculated. To stay on extended benefits, the average unemployment rate in the last three months must be at least 110 percent of one of the rates from a comparable three-month period in one of the last three years. So for the states affected, their current average three-month unemployment rate is lower than at any of the same three month periods in the last three years.
The three-month average is recalculated every month.
The nation's unemployment system is run jointly by the federal government and the states and provides monthly benefits to workers who become unemployed through no fault of their own. But states have wide latitude in determining who is eligible to receive benefits, as well as how long and how much a worker can collect, making the system different from state to state.
Until last year, states typically provided up to 26 weeks of benefits, the maximum allowed under federal law. As Stateline reported, Michigan, Missouri and South Carolina set a lower limit of 20 weeks. Illinois and Arkansas reduced their maximum to 25. Florida links the amount of time people can collect state unemployment insurance to the state's unemployment rate, ranging from 12 to 23 weeks.
The basic extended benefits program provides up to 13 additional weeks of benefits when a state is experiencing high unemployment. Some states have also enacted a voluntary program to pay up to seven additional weeks of extended benefits during periods of extremely high unemployment.
Some 453,300 Americans were getting extended benefits at the end of February, the most recent data available.
The payroll tax cut that Congress passed earlier this year allowed the extended benefits program to continue through 2012. Unlike earlier extensions to the program that phased out benefits, this one has a hard cut-off date, so that all payments must be made by the first week of January 2013, says George Wentworth, senior staff attorney at NELP. This means even if a person qualified for weeks of benefits beyond the first week of January, those benefits will not be paid.
The Center on Budget Policies and Priorities also has this map explaining the duration of each state's unemployment benefits.