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States End Extended Benefits Despite Dismal Outlook


So far this year, 25 states have ended the Extended Benefits program. That program made sure people out of work for long periods of time continued receiving financial assistance. But there was a catch: if a state's unemployment rate improved, the money would stop flowing. The fact that some states are seeing lower unemployment may seem like a good sign for the economy. It's no comfort to the people who are still out of work.

Susie An from WBEZ in Chicago has that story.

SUSIE AN, BYLINE: Ilene Tokarz is 43 years old and unemployed. Until last year, she was an advisor at a high school radio station in suburban Chicago.

ILENE TOKARZ: So after 11 years, I was done. And being public schools, no severance, nothing like that. So it was just done.

AN: After getting laid off, she followed the typical process, filed for unemployment and searched daily for jobs. And then recently, she got a vague notice that her unemployment benefits could be ending soon.

TOKARZ: If your benefits are ending, you'll know because you won't get any more money.

AN: Tokarz is on a type of federally funded unemployment extension program that kicks in after state benefits end. Once she's exhausted that, Extended Benefits will no longer be available to her. She gets $660 every two weeks. That covers her rent, food and health insurance. Without that money, she wonder what will happen if she needs emergency health care.

TOKARZ: Who would have to pay for that? Well, there's the state would have to pay for that. You know, they would have to come in. I'd be unable to pay.

AN: Fewer than 10 states are currently paying Extended Benefits. A state can offer the federally funded program if its unemployment rate within a three month average is at least 10 percent higher than it was in any of the three years before that period.

Illinois' program triggered off last month with an 8.7 percent unemployment rate. Greg Rivara is with the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

GREG RIVARA: In Illinois the economy is improving. The Extended Benefit program is tied to the unemployment rate. And the unemployment rate has been consistently falling since January of 2010 when it peaked at greater than 11 percent.

AN: Rivara acknowledges the number isn't great. And he says about 26,000 Illinois residents were cut off from the Extended Benefits program, while many others are in line to see their benefits expire soon.

RIVARA: The Extended Benefit program in Illinois was the last in a series of programs. So there's no program for individuals to graduate to once Extended Benefits was turned off.

AN: That's a problem that thousands like Amy Hayden are facing. Sitting in a cafe in Chicago, the 38-year-old says she's been looking for work for most of the past three years. And now that she's nearing the end of her benefits, she says she'll have to leave her two kids behind while looking for work in New York City.

AMY HAYDEN: Based on the jobs advertised, it seems like it will be better. I'm still very nervous because I don't really have a lot of time left. And I don't really have a lot of other resources. You know, I've long since liquidated my retirement funds. I have a physical limitation that prevents me from doing physical work. So like getting a retail job or a food service industry job is kind of out of the question.

AN: Ilene Tokarz and Amy Hayden will soon have lots of company, because all federally funded extended unemployment benefit programs are expected to expire at the end of the year.

For NPR News, I'm Susie An in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a reporter for WBEZ's news desk, Susie produces content for daily newscasts and WBEZ's website. She also anchors, occasionally, delivering news on WBEZ. She directed WBEZ's Schools on the Line monthly call-in show. Her work has also been heard on NPR, CBC and BBC. Susie joined WBEZ as a news desk intern in September 2007. Prior to joining WBEZ, Susie worked at the Peoria Journal Star newspaper and worked as an acquisitions editor for Publications International,Ltd.