WASHINGTON -- A busload of unemployed Baltimore residents have appealed to a House subcommittee to help them survive a recession that has left them desperate for work.
"We need our (unemployment) benefits extended now, not six months or a year from now," said William Buckheit, 54, who has been laid off twice in the last year. Buckheit was one of more than 40 jobless Baltimore residents to attend a hearing yesterday of the Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The Baltimore residents were joined by two more busloads of unemployed activists from Pennsylvania and New York, who crowded into the hearing room and rose at one point to wave paper signs bearing slogans such as "Extend Benefits Now," and "Where's the Benefits? Where's the Beef?"
Rep. Thomas J. Downey, D-N.Y., called the hearing to address ways Congress can make extended unemployment benefits available to more people. Federal unemployment insurance technically runs out after 26 weeks, but can be extended by another 13 weeks in states where the rate of unemployment among insured workers has reached 6 percent.
But many out-of-work Americans do not have unemployment insurance, said Downey, who argued the extension should be based on across-the-board unemployment figures. Both insured and uninsured workers should be counted, he said. Downey also objected that the Federal Unemployment Trust Fund has an $8 billion balance that is not being tapped by the unemployed people who need it.
"We're sorry that you have to travel from Baltimore, Philadelphia or New York to tell us that $8 billion that is nestled in a trust fund somewhere should be given back to you," said Downey, who plans to to introduce legislation within two weeks that would increase access to unemployment insurance. "It is monstrously unfair."
The witnesses told lawmakers that a worsening recession has created a crisis in the job market, forcing many of them go without work far longer than they anticipated. Many complained of employers who had replaced their full-time staffs with part-time or temporary workers, and of jobs that offered hourly wages below the legal minimum.
Turning to welfare or other social benefits is not a solution, said Albert Hall, a Baltimore truck driver and brick mason who was laid off four months ago from his job at a Virginia masonry company.
"These people lose their homes, their families, their self respect," said Hall, 33. "They say: 'Go to welfare, go to Social Security.' That takes a lot a way from a man. That takes a lot away from the family structure."
In January, the national unemployment rate was 6.2 percent. In Baltimore, the rate of unemployment for insured workers is only 2.6 percent, but membership is growing rapidly at the Baltimore Unemployed Council, a grassroots coalition formed last month.