MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Unemployment insurance benefits will expire Saturday for thousands of out-of-work Minnesotans if Congress doesn't renew a program that gives extra aid to those who have used up their six months of state unemployment checks.
Hopes that the benefits would be renewed dimmed after lawmakers left Washington last week without striking a deal on the so-called fiscal cliff. Unemployment benefits have become a bargaining chip in the stalled negotiations between the White House and congressional Republicans.
Allowing the benefits to expire could save the federal government $30 billion, but the cost to 12,200 Minnesotans would be steep.
"They're not going to be able to pay the rent, they're not going to be able to pay utilities and it's the middle of winter," said Maurice Emsellem, a policy analyst for the National Unemployment Law Project.
Some jobless Minnesotans hope to survive by cutting back expenses, according to a report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Sue Frenzel, 59, is halfway through her 26 weeks of regular state unemployment, so the Minneapolis woman still has time to find a job as a legal secretary. She minimizes expenses by living in an apartment and not owning a car.
"I've got unemployment until March, and I will be trying to get a job that I want," Frenzel said. If she doesn't find a job, she said she'll stretch her savings as far as she can.
But for other families, losing benefits on Saturday could be devastating.
"It's very scary. People are extremely vulnerable," said Andrea Ferstan, director of income strategies for Greater Twin Cities United Way.
She said thousands of Minnesotans could find themselves turning to charity and local government for help with basic needs such as food, shelter and energy bills.
Federal funding for jobless aid nearly tripled during the recession, rising from $33 billion in 2007 to $94 billion in 2012.
In 2008, Congress created the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. It offered up to 53 extra weeks of benefits to the long-term unemployed, with aid varying by state depending on unemployment rates.
In Minnesota, the unemployment rate is two points lower than the national average. The program here offers 14 extra weeks of unemployment checks those who have exhausted their first 26 weeks. Last month, state officials began notifying the 12,200 people who will see their benefits expire, said Blake Chaffee, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Joe Orvik, 48, of Minneapolis, tried to be philosophical about his unemployment payments expiring after 26 weeks. The environmental technician is halfway through his state benefits, and he has periodically gone off unemployment to take short-term jobs.
"If push comes to shove, I'll get a job doing just about anything," he said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.