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Unemployment benefits at risk

Howard Weinert has been traveling around the country looking for work.

A master electrician, Weinert was first laid off in April 2009, before using up 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. He found another job at the Comerford Dam in Monroe - but was laid off again. His last week of benefits was June 13.

Congress hasn't passed another extension of unemployment benefits. Weinert hasn't found a job, so he has no income. He was evicted from his home in Claremont and moved to Belmont. He feels abandoned.

"Many people in the construction trade have no place to turn and no income whatsoever," Weinert said.

Weinert is among the approximately 20,000 New Hampshire residents who could see their unemployment benefits end in the next four months. Yesterday, Gov. John Lynch joined state officials, clergymen and union members to call on Congress to extend unemployment benefits.

"A failure to do so will jeopardize the economic progress that we've been making and hurt thousands of New Hampshire families," Lynch said.

Wednesday night, the U.S. Senate left for its July 4 recess without passing an unemployment insurance extension. With the death of West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, Democratic senators were able to muster only 59 votes to pass the extension - one short of the number required to avert a Republican filibuster. The bill would have extended benefits through the end of November, costing the government $33.9 billion. It would be retroactive to workers who lost their benefits May 30, when a previous extension ran out. According to the Associated Press, 1.3 million workers nationwide already lost their benefits in June. Senators are likely to vote again on the issue after the recess, once West Virginia's governor appoints a successor for Byrd.

New Hampshire today has 27,000 people collecting unemployment benefits, which average $275 a week, said Employment Security Commissioner Tara Reardon. There are 47,290 residents unemployed, according to the state Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau, but Reardon said that figure includes former students, the self-employed and those who are no longer looking for work, who are not eligible for benefits. New Hampshire's unemployment rate was 6.4 percent at the end of May, compared with a national unemployment rate of 9.7 percent.

Lynch said he has talked to the state's congressional delegation and to the governors of other states. All three Democrats in New Hampshire's congressional delegation - Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Reps. Paul Hodes and Carol Shea-Porter support extending unemployment benefits. Republican Sen. Judd Gregg is opposed to the bill because it would borrow money to pay for the benefits and add to the national debt.

"There are some legitimate ideas and programs in this extender bill, but they should be paid for," Gregg said on the Senate floor. "They shouldn't simply be put on the credit card and passed to the next generation."

Some Republicans, led by Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, have suggested putting some unspent money from stimulus dollars toward the unemployment benefits, instead of borrowing the entire amount. But the sides were unable to come to an agreement.

Hodes, in a conference call with reporters, argued that the unemployment benefits must be passed as an emergency measure, despite concerns about the deficit.

"While it's really crucial to cut wasteful spending and deal with deficits, given the impact of this recession, the emergency so many people who are unemployed are facing, it's critical to look at this as emergency spending," Hodes said.

Hodes, who is running for Senate, blamed Republicans, including Gregg, for failing citizens who are unemployed.

"It's essential to provide support for folks that are struggling," Hodes said. "To deny unemployed Americans help with unemployment insurance is simply cruel and shortsighted."

Hodes said that by passing relatively short extensions, Congress can continue to monitor the economy and determine how long benefits should continue.

Both Hodes and state officials said the effect on the state could be greater than the loss to unemployed individuals, since the unemployed could seek help from local welfare officials, further straining town and city budgets. They would also not spend money on rent or groceries.

Lynch said if unemployment benefits are not extended, $75 million would not come into the New Hampshire economy.

"That's a crucial lifeline helping people to put food on their table and gas in their cars to look for a job," Lynch said.

Electrician Daniel Jordan knows that all too well. Jordan, who is 57, single and living in Tilton, has been unemployed for seven months. Unemployment benefits gave him the minimum he needed to buy food and pay some bills. His last check will arrive July 10 if the benefits aren't extended.

"No money for an extension means zero income," Jordan said. "No benefits, no pension, no insurance."

Brian Hardy, a Vietnam veteran from Littleton who spoke on the Hodes conference call, is in no immediate danger of losing his benefits - which he just started two weeks ago, after his severance pay ran out. But he said he has learned how important the benefits are for people who may need the extension now.

Hardy, 63, said he changed careers several years ago to work in social services with alcohol and drug addicts. He lost his job in April.

"I challenge some of these Republican candidates and officeholders go to the supermarket, see $3.59 for a loaf of bread and more than $3 (for a) gallon of milk," Hardy said.

If his benefits run out before he finds a job, Hardy said, "I don't know what that's going to mean. Maybe early retirement."

New Hampshire Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson attended Lynch's press conference, and Catholic Bishop John McCormack sent an emissary with a statement.

"As a society, we're judged on how we care for the most vulnerable," Robinson said.

Robinson said his church has seen people who used to staff a clothing pantry now coming in as clients. A food bank in Goffstown has seen a 300 percent increase in clients over the past year.

The amount of money the state has paid out in unemployment benefits has increased. In 2008, the state paid out $11 million, Reardon said. In 2009, the state paid $93 million. So far in 2010, the state has paid $74 million.