Unemployed Workers Demand Renewal of Unemployment Insurance; Deliver 80,000 Petitions to Congress

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Petition to Congress deliveryMore than two hundred unemployed workers took to Capitol Hill today, at a rally and press event calling for immediate Congressional action to renew the federal unemployment insurance (UI) program through 2012.  They were joined by Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), who delivered 80,000 online signers of the Petition to Congress launched by Unemployedworkers.org.

Without Congressional action before the program’s expiration December 31, nearly 2 million jobless workers and their families would be cut off of federal unemployment insurance in January alone.  Millions more would be cut off in subsequent months.  NELP has estimated that more than 6 million unemployed Americans could lose access to federal UI benefits during 2012 if Congress fails to renew the program.

“This issue challenges the soul of America,” said Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) as he welcomed the unemployed workers alongside other Members of Congress.  He then introduced Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis to the packed room in the House Visitors Center.  “There are those in Congress who say we can’t afford to extend unemployment benefits,” Solis said.  “I say we can’t afford not to… it’s the American thing to do.”

Rep. Levin was joined by the other lead sponsors of recently-introduced legislation to renew the federal unemployment insurance program --  Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) and Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.) – and a host of other Members of the House and Senate supporting the legislation, including Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) who vowed to keep the Congress in session through the Christmas holiday if it had not yet renewed unemployment insurance.  "There will be no Christmas for Congress unless there is an extension of the unemployment insurance before we leave here," Harkin said.

Renew UI Now!But it was the voices of the unemployed workers who spoke that were the highlight of the event, resounding through the room as if to echo those of millions of their fellow jobless citizens.

“I’ve never been out of work, and I’ve never before received unemployment insurance,” said Jill Fleming-Salopek, an educator of 15 years who was laid off from her western Pennsylvania school district job in August, along with 30 percent of the schools’ workforce, including forty teachers, due to state budget cuts.  “But unemployment compensation right now is our essential lifeline.”

“My husband, who is also a teacher, is working,” she said, “and the unemployment benefits are a critical supplement to that income for our family because we not only have our three kids, but my mother, who is quadriplegic and suffers from MS, lives with us as well.”  She said that if Congress fails to renew federal unemployment insurance before December 31 and she is still an unemployed job-seeker, she would have the benefits cut off by the end of March.

“Unlike so many of us,” Ms. Fleming-Salopek added, “our lawmakers still have their jobs – and it’s time they started doing their jobs and pass the extension of federal unemployment insurance for 2012 so that I and 6 million other hardworking Americans aren’t just cut off next year.”

David DiCarlo from Baltimore was laid off from his job in mortgage lending when the firm he worked for closed in March of this year.  “All my life, I had done everything I was supposed to do,” DiCarlo said,  “work hard, build some modest savings, keep my credit card debt way down.  But that’s all at risk now that I’m unemployed.”

“And let me tell you – it’s very scary.  I’ve been to job fairs; I’m always searching all the job posting sites; I’m networking and applying for all types of sales positions – not just in mortgage lending.  I’ve posted resumes and applied for several hundred jobs – and I’ve had but two phone interviews,” he said, emphatically raising two fingers in the air.

“Thank goodness for unemployment insurance.  It has made all the difference in the world for me and my wife,” DiCarlo said.  “Because of unemployment insurance, we’ve been able to maintain our home and our basic bill payments.  But if Congress fails to renew the full federal unemployment programs by the end of this year, my benefits would end in February.  For us, that would be devastating!”

DiCarlo said he was speaking out to urge Congress to renew the federal benefits “not just for me, but for millions like me – like my best friend who right now can’t find a job.   And also for those still working but who could lose their jobs still – like my wife’s colleague who was just recently laid off – and my brother, who’s afraid that he could lose his job.”

Vincent Brandon, from Pittsburgh, told of how he was laid off from his job as a public transit driver at the end of March, along with over 300 other operators and mechanics who also lost their jobs because of transportation budget cuts.  “I am a 47-year-old Army veteran who served 8 years in full time service and another 2 years in the Reserves,” Brandon said.  “I’m a hardworking man who’s worked since I was a teenager.   I want to work, I need to work, not just for myself, but also for my 5-year-old daughter who I help support and care for – and my son, who’s in college, and my fiancé,” he added, “who is waiting patiently for a ring.”

“Right now I’d have to say I’ve got the hardest job I’ve ever had – looking for work in this rough economy,” Brandon said.  “And for me it’s an all-day, every-day job.”

Mr. Brandon is also facing the dire prospect of having his unemployment insurance cut off early next year if Congress does not act.  “This is truly a scary situation,” he said.  “It would be harmful and cruel for Congress to just walk away and turn its back on millions of hardworking unemployed Americans like me.”

“I’d ask our lawmakers to take a look in the mirror,” he concluded, “and ask themselves if they are the kind of person who would do that -- who would turn their back on people like me who lost their job through absolutely no fault of their own – people like me, who served his country.  I would hope they’d be able to answer ‘No, I’m not that kind of person,’ and then get on with the business of passing the federal unemployment insurance extension.”

Workers were mobilized for the event by several labor, advocacy and grassroots organizations including SEIU, OurDC, AFSCME, Building Trades of the AFL-CIO, Bricklayers, IBEW, UAW, AFT and the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee.

Dozens of unemployed union Bricklayers from New York traveled to Washington to be at the event.  Anthony Federico was one of them, and he spoke passionately about the need to create jobs – real, good-paying jobs – and continue the federal unemployment program for those who can’t find a job in the worst job market since the Great Depression.

On hand to deliver the 80,000 Petitions to Congress, as well as hundreds of unemployed workers’ personal stories submitted through their websites, were representatives of the groups promoting the Petition:  the National Employment Law Project, Unemployedworkers.org, USAction, MomsRising.org and the AFL-CIO.

The groups, along with other unions, faith groups, community and advocacy organizations are planning a series of rallies, lobbying visits, vigils, online actions and Congressional call-ins – both in Washington, D.C. and nationwide this coming week to press the Congress to renew federal unemployment insurance for 2012.

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