President and Congress Act Again to Help Unemployed Workers

While unemployment hovers above 12 percent in California, President Obama signed into law a bill to offer much-needed relief to working families by extending unemployment insurance (UI) benefits and continuing health insurance subsidies for the unemployed.

The bill, H.R. 3326, moves the deadline for qualifying for a series of federally funded UI benefit extensions from the end of December to the end of February and continues a $25 per week supplement of UI benefits through February. Nationally, 2.3 million unemployed workers are expected to benefit from this extension of benefit eligibility. In California, jobless workers who qualify for all the extended UI programs receive 73 weeks of benefits after their 26 weeks of state UI benefits run out.

H.R. 3326 also extends health insurance subsidies, known as COBRA, from nine months to 15 months and allows workers to qualify for the program through February 28, 2010. Like UI benefits, COBRA was scheduled to end by the new year. We have previously written about COBRA, the federal program that allows workers who lose their jobs to pay the full cost to continue health coverage through their former employer. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 subsidized 65 percent of jobless workers’ health coverage premiums for nine months. These subsidies began expiring this month for workers who signed up for the program when it first became available. Without this assistance, individuals who are unemployed in California and elected to continue their job-based coverage would see their premiums increase from an average of about $150 a month to $428, according to the 2009 California Employer Health Benefits Survey.

This two-month extension of unemployment and health insurance benefits will help thousands of Californians, but it’s a stop-gap measure. One-third of the state’s jobless workers have been out of work at least half a year, and jobs are still very hard to come by. Many of the unemployed will continue to need extended UI benefits and the COBRA subsidy, but will not qualify for them unless Congress acts again and pushes the February 28, 2010 qualifying deadline later into the year.

— Hanh Kim Quach and Vicky Lovell

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