Lawmakers look to extend unemployment benefits

Oregon's economy may be on the rebound, but not fast enough for the tens of thousands out of work and running out of unemployment benefits, say two state senators who are working on an extension.

"Our unemployment rate is down, and that is good news," said Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum. "That still leaves 218,000 Oregonians who are out of work."

Rosenbaum, a Portland Democrat, has teamed up with Dallas Republican Sen. Brian Boquist to sponsor two bills that, between them, would extend unemployment benefits for between 20 and 26 weeks. The bills are on a fast track and would be signed by Gov. John Kitzhaber if they reach his desk.

The first, Senate Bill 637, taps into a federal emergency fund that would give Oregon $225 million for workers who have been out of work since 2009 and have exhausted all other benefits. About 50,000 residents would be eligible for those benefits, Rosenbaum said, at no cost to the state treasury.

On top of that, Senate Bill 638 would tack on another six weeks of benefits to those out of work since 2008, for a combined extension of about six months. That gives a bit more breathing room for the economy to continue its recovery and people to pin down a job, Rosenbaum said.

Both bills are up for a hearing today. The bill has bipartisan support, and Rosenbaum says she's hopeful it can zip through the Legislature in time to kick in by April 16. That's when tens of thousands of unemployed Oregonians are expected to run out of benefits.

For James Mitchell, who lost his job in the financial services industry two years ago, the extension would be a tremendous relief. Mitchell, of Southeast Portland, ran out of unemployment benefits about two weeks ago.

"I'm just keeping everything to a bare minimum," Mitchell said Tuesday. "No fancy stuff, just trying to eke it out for now."

He said he has been applying for every job in sight, and was hoping to hear back by today about a possible bank teller's job. He was cheered up when he heard the Legislature was looking at a possible six-month extension.

"That'll definitely help stretch things out," Mitchell said.

Rosenbaum said the extensions are necessary to stave off what could become a dire situation for thousands unable to find work since the recession struck. Without the extension of benefits, as many as 35,000 people a week would begin to exhaust benefits by April, according to state labor statistics.

Oregon's share of the cost is projected to be $30 million from its unemployment fund. The amount is big enough to add a six-week buffer, but not so big to cause a hike in unemployment insurance rates, Rosenbaum said. "It's a balance between what we can afford to do and providing some help," she said.

The latest state jobs report, released Tuesday, shows growth and gives out-of-work Oregonians reason for hope, Rosenbaum said.

"But at the same time, you talk to people who have just lost their job, or your read about the Blue Heron paper mill," she said, referring to the Oregon City company that suddenly shut down last week. "Things are improving, but it's still definitely hard times for a lot of Oregon workers."

She said the bipartisan nature of the bill gives her hope that it will have smooth sailing through the Legislature. And Kitzhaber, who suggested soon after he was elected that benefit extensions might become necessary, already is on board.

"The governor believes it's a good idea," said Kitzhaber spokeswoman Christine Miles. "He likes what he sees and is looking forward to getting it on his desk."

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