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Benefits period cut for unemployed

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / June 23, 2012
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The amount of time people in Massachusetts can collect unemployment benefits will be reduced by about 13 weeks as a result of the state’s steadily declining jobless rate.

As of Saturday, unemployed workers in Massachusetts will receive a maximum of 60 weeks of benefits, down from 73 in February, and 99 weeks during the worst of the recession in 2009. With the reduction, the state estimates about 1,600 people a week will exhaust benefits.

“It’s a good news, tough news story because there just isn’t a black and white picture of the recovery,’’ said Jennifer James, the state’s undersecretary for workforce development. “Yes, the recession is over and the economy is recovering. But if you are still the person who is unemployed, it doesn’t make you very happy.”

The cut in benefits is the result of federal rules approved in February, which reduce emergency unemployment benefits by 13 weeks if the three-month average of a state’s jobless rate falls below 7 percent. The Massachusetts unemployment rate has remained below 7 percent since December, and fell to 6 percent in May. The national unemployment rate was 8.2 percent in May.

But local economists said finding a job in the state remains difficult because there are tens of thousands of discouraged and underemployed workers who aren’t counted in official unemployment statistics.

For instance, according to monthly data collected by Northeastern University economics professor Alan Clayton-Matthews, nearly 183,000 people in Massachusetts were working part-time jobs because they couldn’t find full-time work in April, the latest statistics available. In addition, 30,000 had given up looking for work. (Only those who actively seek work are counted as unemployed.)

When all these workers are considered, the unemployment rate doubles to about 12 percent, Clayton-Matthews said.

“For those people [now] coming off unemployment, they’re going to have to get a job, any job, and it’s probably not going to be a good one,” Clayton-Matthews said. “If it were, they would have had it by now.”

In 2011, out-of-work job seekers spent an average of 37 weeks collecting unemployment — the longest duration in post-World War II history, said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern. In contrast, in 2000, the average length of unemployment was 10 weeks.

That jump in time spent unemployed is problematic, Sum said, because the longer someone has been out of work, the more difficult it is to find a job and the more likely he or she is to drop out of the labor force.

“These long-term unemployed have real severe difficulties finding employment,” Sum said, “and we run the real risk of losing them.”

Patricia James broke down in tears Friday as she recounted her fruitless job search of more than two years. James, 57, was laid off from a temporary job at Citizens Bank at the end of 2009. She has taken skills classes at Operation ABLE of Greater Boston, a nonprofit that offers training for older workers, but none of the interviews she has landed have resulted in a job offer.

Her unemployment benefits ran out about two months ago, and since then she has relied on her daughters to help pay rent on her Cambridge apartment.

“I want to work. I want a job,” she said through her tears. “I’m not going to give up. There’s a prayer I read every day. It says, ‘Don’t quit, don’t quit.’ I put it on my refrigerator.”

John Drew, president of Action for Boston Community Development, a nonprofit that serves low-income families in Greater Boston, said cutting unemployment benefits now will only hurt those who were hardest hit in the last recession: minority and poor communities.

“People are hurting more, not less,” Drew said. “The homeless are more homeless. The jobless are still jobless.”

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.

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