NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

January 10, 2014

Congress should extend unemployment benefits

The crowd of local business leaders gathered Wednesday morning over bacon and eggs for the North Shore Chamber of Commerce’s annual economic forecast were greeted with a mostly positive outlook for 2014.

Rob Lutts of Salem’s Cabot Money Management and David Caruso of Coastal Capital of Danvers both expect the economy to continue to expand in the new year, with a healthy stock market for investors, a wealth of venture capital for innovators and increasingly healthy balance sheets for recession-weary companies.

Lutts pointed out, however, that the economy is improving along two separate tracks. For highly educated, skilled workers — “basically, everyone in this room,” he said, gesturing to the crowd gathered at the Danversport Yacht Club — the recovery is moving apace. Trained workers are once again in demand.

For the unemployed members of the so-called “unskilled” labor force, Lutts said, the going has been much more difficult. Many jobs that disappeared during the recession simply aren’t coming back as companies increased efficiency.

Those workers need to be trained for new jobs, Lutts said, noting the important role schools such as North Shore Community College can play in the effort.

That retraining takes time, which is one more reason why Congress needs to extend emergency jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.

Earlier this week, the Senate passed a measure that would restore benefits to an estimated 1.3 million long-term jobless — including 60,000 in Massachusetts — who were cut off when the program expired Dec. 28. The extension would also delay a cutoff in benefits for another 1.9 million people. Federal coverage averages about $256 a week and lasts from 14 to 47 weeks. State-funded benefits typically run out after 26 weeks (30 in Massachusetts).

The measure faces a much tougher road in the House, where Republicans are balking at the $6.5 billion price tag. Others, such as Rand Paul of Kentucky, argue that an extension would simply let the unemployed put off looking for work, “to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy.”

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