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Congress' failure to act to affect jobless Oklahomans

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TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ Congress' failure to extend federal unemployment benefits will leave about 8,000 jobless Oklahomans without any income later this month.

Lawmakers could not reach a compromise to extend the benefits through March 29, despite an effort by U.S. Sens. Don Nickles, R-Okla., and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

As a result, the program will expire Dec. 28, leaving 833,000 people nationally without benefits. Each week after that, an estimated 95,000 people nationwide will lose their benefits.

Laid-off workers generally receive a maximum 26 weeks of unemployment insurance from the states, including Oklahoma. In March, Congress created a 13-week extension in federal jobless benefits for workers who have used up the maximum coverage they receive from the states.

Sue Havens, director of unemployment insurance for the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, said between 6,000 and 8,000 people statewide will lose benefits immediately on Dec. 28.

After that about 2,300 people per month who would have qualified for the extension will go without benefits, Havens said.

``It's going to be devastating in a lot of places to a lot of people,'' she told the Tulsa World. ``Oklahoma hasn't been as hard hit as some of the other states like New York but when you are unemployed, that's your only money coming in and it's not good.''

The unemployment rate for November reached 6 percent nationally. Oklahoma's jobless rate was 4.7 percent in October, the latest month for which figures are available.

Brook Simmons, a spokesman for Nickles, said Nickles and Rodham Clinton ``tried mightily for two or three days and they couldn't get anywhere.''

He said the issue will return when Congress reconvenes Jan. 7.

Steven Dow, executive director for the Community Action Project of Tulsa County, said the failure of Congress to act is depriving unemployed workers of benefits for which employers have already paid.

Employers pay a tax per employee each year and the money is placed in a trust fund to operate the program.

``You would be indignant if you paid your homeowner's premium or your car insurance for years and you go to collect on it and they say, `Sorry, you're not covered,''' Dow said.

Not only are workers hurt, but the lapse in federal unemployment benefits is also hurting the nation's ailing economy, according to the National Employment Law Project. The organization focuses on policies and laws affecting low-wage and unemployed workers.

According to the group, the federal extension has brought $10.7 billion into local economies since it was enacted in March. Of that figure, $58.3 million has gone to Oklahoma workers.

The group estimated that Oklahoma will lose $1.1 million per week in benefits when the extension expires.
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