JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — When Demetrius White recently lost his job as a $10-an-hour forklift driver loading pallets of shampoo, he applied for unemployment benefits to help support his family.
That aid will not last as long as it once did, because White is among the first group of people affected by a new Missouri law reducing the duration of jobless benefits. His $200-a-week checks will last no more than three months — just half as long as what has typically been available.
“That’s a dramatic change, really,” White said. “Thirteen weeks, I don’t know if I’ll be able to find a job.”
States traditionally have offered up to half a year of aid for the unemployed as they search for new jobs. But since the end of the Great Recession, eight states have reduced the number of weeks that people can draw benefits, while others have cut the amount of money the unemployed can collect.
The cutbacks generally are intended to help shore up unemployment insurance trust funds, which went insolvent in 35 states following the recession that began in 2008. The changes could save hundreds of millions of dollars for businesses that pay unemployment taxes.
President Barack Obama is pushing in the opposite direction. The White House warns that states are engaging in a “damaging erosion” of unemployment benefits. Obama’s budget plan would require all states to provide at least 26 weeks of benefits while expanding coverage to more part-time and intermittent workers.
The Republican-led Congress appears unlikely to approve the president’s plan during an election year. GOP governors and state lawmakers initiated many of the recent cutbacks to unemployment benefits. And they point to declining unemployment rates as evidence that jobs are getting easier to find.
“When there’s more jobs available, it’s kind of common sense — you shouldn’t need as long as a duration of unemployment benefits,” said Missouri Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, a Republican who handled the legislation reducing benefits.
The 1935 Social Security Act prompted states to enact unemployment programs, which typically pay people about half the amount of their previous paychecks. In 1938, more than four-fifths of the states offered benefits for 16 weeks or less. But all states gradually increased their benefits to at least 26 weeks. South Carolina was the last to do so in 1968.
In 2011, Missouri became one of the first states to reverse course by cutting that to 20 weeks. Last year, the GOP-led Legislature overrode a veto by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon to further shorten the benefits, linking their duration to the state’s unemployment rate. Because unemployment is below 6 percent, people can get no more than 13 weeks of benefits.
The new limit went into effect in January, even though a legal challenge brought by attorneys for the AFL-CIO is now before the Missouri Supreme Court. The lawsuit seeks to block the new law because of an alleged procedural violation by senators.
For some unemployed workers, the new state laws have added another layer of anxiety to an already unsettling situation.