Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger wants jobless Marylanders whose unemployment checks have run out to send him their stories and photos as he and other Democrats push for a House vote on extended benefits.
"Over the past four months, I've heard from Marylanders on the verge of losing their homes," the Baltimore County Democrat said Monday at an event in Hanover. "Some have had to give up their cars, which makes it nearly impossible to go to a job interview. Others have had to cancel their Internet service, which makes it hard to search for job openings."
Federally funded benefits had extended unemployment assistance beyond the months covered by states' programs during the sharp recession and difficult recovery, but that expired Dec. 28.
Between 33,000 and 40,000 Marylanders have exhausted their unemployment benefits since then, according to the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Residents, who can receive up to 26 weeks of state benefits, are no longer eligible for the additional 37 weeks the federal payments covered.
The Senate approved a bill reauthorizing extended benefits early last month. But House Republicans are blocking the bill from coming up for a vote, Ruppersberger said. His event Monday is part of an effort by Democrats to bring attention to the issue.
It's a contentious one. Republicans have said the bill is too expensive for a country struggling with its own budget issues, an argument repeated by a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.
"The Speaker has said since before Christmas that he is willing to look at a plan to extend these emergency benefits again, if it is fiscally-responsible and helps create private sector jobs," said Michael Steel, the spokesman, by email. "Washington Democrats have not produced such a plan."
Ruppersberger argued Monday that unemployment benefits have a positive economic effect because people who receive them immediately spend the money on food and other necessities. The Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning group that focuses on issues affecting low- and middle-income people, argued last year that extending the help through 2014 would support 310,000 jobs nationally.
There's also debate about whether more weeks of unemployment checks cause higher unemployment.
"Give people unemployment benefits, and it's likely they will take longer to find employment," said the conservative Heritage Foundation in a January blog post.
A 2013 paper by economists at Princeton University and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco said extended benefits do keep people in the labor force longer — looking for work rather than giving up — but have "virtually no effect on the rate of job finding" in weak labor markets.
Democrats are trying to personalize the issue. Ruppersberger said he wants to post the experiences and photos of out-of-work residents outside his office in Washington "so that other lawmakers can see the faces of Marylanders affected by the loss of unemployment benefits as they walk the halls of Congress." He asked people to share their stories at his website.
Out-of-work Marylanders held signs at his event, held at the One-Stop Career Center at Arundel Mills, that showed the number of days they've been unemployed. Some detailed exhaustive efforts to get new jobs.
Jeanne Keen, 52, who lost her accounting and human resources job last May in rolling layoffs at a local manufacturer, said she found new employment, but it ended quickly. The Dundalk resident said she's applied for more than 350 positions and took a college course in job hunting and interviewing skills, to make sure she was doing everything she could.
She's run through her savings and 401(k). Her telephone and Internet services were turned off, and she has been warned to expect foreclosure proceedings on her house if she isn't able to find a job this month.
"I'm down to $350, and that's my car payment," she said.
Keen, whose adult daughter and son are also struggling to find work, said her experience is being repeated across the country as stints in unemployment drag on for months and even years.
"As this situation becomes more desperate, so do the people enveloped in it," she said.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said in a telephone interview Monday that he's pushing "very hard" for the extended benefits to be renewed because he sees that desperation daily in his neighborhood. The No. 1 request he gets from constituents is, "Can you help me find a job?"
"So people want to work — they want to work," he said. "But a lot of them can't find it, and therefore when it comes to the unemployment benefits, they have served as a lifeline."
Glen Burnie resident Tiffany Connor, 40, came to Rupperberger's event with a sign that numbered her days of unemployment in black ink: "318." Her benefits stopped in December.
She said she's lost her Internet access and home phone, her power is on the verge of being shut off and she just received an eviction notice in the mail.
"I'm truly trying to come out of this," she said. "I just want to work."