About 7,000 Oklahomans could lose extended federal unemployment benefits if Congress doesn't renew the program by the end of the year, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission said Tuesday.
Renewal of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program is among several choices facing Congress in negotiations on the “fiscal cliff,” the catchall term for a package of tax increases and spending cuts that take effect at the end of the year.
“This all depends on Congress,” said John Carpenter, commission spokesman. “It's based on legislation that's getting ready to expire. Nobody can do anything until they act.”
Extension of the emergency unemployment benefits program could cost $22 billion in fiscal year 2013 and $31 billion in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The federal program extends the regular, 26-week maximum state unemployment benefits in Oklahoma. It has several tiers of extensions based on a state's unemployment rate. The first tier, which is still in effect, extends benefits for 14 weeks. The second and third tier was available to Oklahomans until June.
Oklahoma's jobless rate never reached the point where the top tier provided benefits for up to 99 weeks under the program.
Almost 320,000 Oklahomans have filed claims under the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program since it began in 2008, Carpenter said. The annual figure peaked at 115,000 claimants in 2010, he said. Oklahomans who qualified at that time could receive unemployment benefits for up to 73 weeks.
The federal program paid out $289.2 million to Oklahomans in emergency unemployment benefits in 2011, according to the commission. It has paid almost $162 million in benefits so far in 2012.
If Congress doesn't act to renew the program, the last date to file or reopen a claim for extended benefits will be Dec. 23. Final payments under the program will be Dec. 29, the commission said.
Carpenter said the worst option would be for Congress to let the program expire, then come back and renew it in early 2013. That would cause confusion and hardship for claimants and burden the commission in its administration of the program, he said.
“In the past, they've let it expire and then renewed it,” Carpenter said. “That's really the most unattractive option for claimants. Our programmers then have to change the database to reflect the changes, which is a waste of resources.”
In Oklahoma, weekly unemployment benefits range from $16 to $368, depending on a claimant's pay level and longevity at their last job. Benefits come from unemployment insurance taxes paid by employers.
For more information on the emergency benefits program, go to oesc.ok.gov and click on the “Unemployment Benefits” link or call (800) 555-1554.