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Bush acts to expand jobless benefits

By SARA FRITZ and KRIS HUNDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 5, 2001


WASHINGTON -- Florida workers who are laid off in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will likely benefit from President's Bush's proposal to enhance unemployment compensation benefits.

Bush announced Thursday that he has decided to extend jobless benefits to workers in states where unemployment is rising rapidly and to provide $3-billion in new emergency aid to workers laid off because of the attacks. He asked Congress to enact these measures as part of an economic stimulus package, which will cost the taxpayers between $60-billion and $75-billion.

"This is a way we can help," Bush declared in a speech to employees of the Labor Department. "We'll act boldly at home to encourage economic growth. We'll take care of people who hurt."

Under Bush's plan, unemployment benefits could be extended from 26 weeks to 39 weeks in states where unemployment rises by 30 percent in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

According to the most recent data, Florida's unemployment rate was 4.2 percent in August. Under Bush's plan, it would have to reach 5.46 percent to trigger an extension of claims.

Warren May, spokesman for Florida's Agency for Workforce Innovation, said that while he is reluctant to speculate how the Florida job market will respond, it appears that unemployment in the state has been rising rapidly since September and might easily reach 5.46 percent in the near future.

"We're seeing a 30 percent increase in claims right now and, in Miami-Dade area especially, it's over that threshold," May said. "It's entirely possible the state's rate will go over 5.46 percent."

May said one approach being considered by the federal government to determine who is eligible for the improved benefits is to compare the state's average total unemployment rate for the three months ending Nov. 30 with the average for June, July and August. If the three-month rate has increased 30 percent, he said, it would likely trigger extended benefits.

Both Florida workers and employers are going to like the president's proposal, May predicted, because 100 percent of the funds for the extended claims would come from the federal government. If the states were to pay part of it, those costs would fall on employers.

"In the past when there have been extended benefits, it's been 50-50 (state and federal)," May said. "So that's good news for Florida employers who won't feel additional impact above what they're feeling now."

May could not remember the last time jobless benefits were extended in Florida, but he recalled that the state was not among the 10 states that qualified for extended benefits in the recession of 1991.

Paul Anderson, spokesman for Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said he did not know how soon Floridians would qualify for extended benefits, but he noted that unemployment insurance claims in Florida rose by 15,700 last week and that the number of claims has tripled since this time last year. Many of the jobs lost were in tourism.

Bush acted under pressure from Democrats, who said the president was not doing enough to help workers affected. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., called Bush's announcement "a step in the right direction."

In addition to extending unemployment benefits, Bush's proposal would provide $3-billion in new funding available through the states under an existing program of emergency grants to meet a variety of needs, including health insurance, day care and job training.

Individuals who were working on Sept. 11 and are not eligible for regular unemployment benefits would qualify and would be required to enroll in government-run training programs.

The government already has $6-billion to spend for a variety of job training programs, and $11-billion earmarked for the program that provides health insurance to low-income children.

Bush also wants to accelerate income tax cuts set to take effect in 2004 and give tax rebates to millions of lower-income workers who did not qualify for the checks mailed out by the IRS during the summer.

The president did not propose an increase in the minimum wage to $5.15 an hour, which Democrats are seeking, but administration officials said Bush would consider it if there are sufficient votes for it in Congress.

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