NEW YORK—Unemployment benefits in New York State have not increased in eleven years. That could soon change if a bill by State Senator George Onorato passes.
A crowd of unemployed workers, state senators and supporters gathered in front of the State Department of Labor in Queens on August 4th to draw attention to a bill seeking to increase unemployment benefits for New Yorkers.
As the number of New Yorkers on unemployment insurance keeps rising, more attention is being directed to the maximum weekly benefit unemployed workers receive, a figure that has not changed since 1998.
“New York’s unemployed workers, in all industries and across the state, are forced to scrape by with benefits far less than what many other states consider acceptable,” said Andrew Stettner, deputy director and chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute in a press release.
The maximum weekly unemployment benefit one can receive is $405, which has now been temporarily increased until the end of 2009 as part of the federal stimulus package, according to Janet K. Kash, the director of communication for State Senator George Onorato, the chairman of the State Senate Labor Committee.
Every week, on average, more than 33,000 New York State workers turn to the unemployment insurance system for support, according to NELP, the National Employment Law Project.
According to NELP, the maximum weekly benefit should be $577 by now if it had kept up with wages over the years, instead of the current $405. States like Connecticut and New Jersey both have significantly higher maximum wages for workers—a maximum of $584 in Jersey and $519 in Connecticut.
The money draws from employer contributions in a taxable wage base, which too has not been raised in eleven years according to a press release.
Currently employers pay unemployment taxes on the first $8,500 of their wages. The proposed bill seeks to increase this wage base to $9,750 by 2010, meaning an increase in amount paid of $54 to the average employee. The wage base would then increase to $13,000 by 2012.
The bill proposes to increase the maximum weekly benefit by $50 dollars for the next few years and then index it to one-half of average weekly wages in 2013, according to NELP. New Yorkers would thus receive a maximum of $525 by July 2010.
Many workers from all levels of the workforce shared their day-to-day challenges being unemployed with the current unemployment benefits.
Joseph Rubi is a 41-year-old office worker who lost his job a year ago due to downsizing and outsourcing in his company. He receives $291 a week in unemployment insurance, much of which goes to taking care of his elderly mother.
He says that he has been looking for a job ever since and says that he cares about working and deserves an opportunity to work.
“I feel like I’m too good to be wasting away on unemployment,” said Rubi.
In New York City alone, the unemployment rate has skyrocketed from 5.1% in 2008 to 9.0% this year, according to the New York State Department of Labor.
Arlette Gammal, worked in accounting and payroll. She says that she is having a hard time with the current weekly rate. She says she is depleting her savings to pay for necessities.
“We’re just middle class people, just to survive is a lot,” she said.
Many expressed that although they are doing ‘everything right', it is difficult to get by with the current unemployment rate.
Angela Durkson has been laid off since January. She says that she now finds herself asking her parents for money to eat.
“There is a debate in which is more important, buying milk or buying bread,” said Angela.
She says that she is a hard worker and is constantly looking for work.
“I want to work. I’m just trying to keep my head above water,” she said.
“In today’s difficult economy, the ranks of the unemployed in New York are growing daily, and people from all wage levels and occupations are facing or having already experienced job losses … New York’s unemployed share one common challenge— making ends meet on low weekly unemployment benefits that have not been raised in more than a decade and that now amount to poverty-level assistance,” said Onorato.