Rebecca Furtado put up a Christmas tree this year, but she isn't sure why.
The 32-year-old Patterson resident is among some 400,000 Californians slated to lose their unemployment benefits at the end of December, when the federal extensions expire. During the recession, Congress approved up to 99 weeks of extensions to help those out of work in the down economy. Without the extensions, the unemployed usually are eligible for a maximum of only 26 weeks of benefits through the state.
Furtado lost her job in medical billing in January and hasn't been able to find work since. She already went through her state unemployment and is now relying on the federal extension to make ends meet. For the past two months, while looking for work, she has been preparing for the possibility of her unemployment ending.
"We're 30 days away from a lot of people losing everything. If we lose unemployment, we won't be able to pay rent in January. We might end up in a shelter or our car," she said of herself and her husband. "We won't have a holidays. I put the Christmas tree up, but I said shouldn't have, because it doesn't feel like a holiday. It is a pretty gloomy situation."
The extensions have proven a lifeline for many people as the economy in the Central Valley slowly recovers. In Stanislaus County, the unemployment rate of 13.9 percent continues to outpace both the national and state rates. During the peak of the Great Recession, the jobless rate shot to a high of 18.9 percent in the area.
In Stanislaus County, more than 6,300 residents are slated to lose their federal benefits Dec. 29, when the extensions are set to expire. The number is almost half the some 13,100 county residents receiving benefits as of September. In neighboring San Joaquin County, more than 8,500 people will fall off the rolls, and in Merced County, some 3,200 will be cut off.
Overall, an estimated 2 million jobless Americans could be affected.
Congress still could vote to extend the benefits, but so far, there is little movement on the issue as the contentious "fiscal cliff" talks continue in the Capitol. Jeff Rowe, director of Stanislaus County's Alliance Worknet, said job seekers are being told to get ready for the worst.
"It's better for them to prepare for the worst-case scenario and potentially have a pleasant surprise," he said. "There is definitely more of a sense of urgency in regards to their job-search efforts and just an overall concern at this point. I don't know if I want to say panic, but there is a big sense of concern."
As the area's work force investment board, Worknet helps those looking for employment with resources and retraining. The state's Employment Development Department, which administers the benefits, has been notifying all recipients about the impending federal unemployment cutoff.
The EDD says 346,300 Californians are getting the extra payments. By year's end, EDD expects nearly 400,000 will qualify for the extended federal benefits.
Catalina Martinez, a public information officer with the EDD, said the department has been providing resources and information to people about what to do when their unemployment runs out. Those who qualify could receive public assistance such as food stamps and Medi-Cal.
"It's something that we're not happy to do. It's unfortunate and we know how critical this help is for them," she said. "This is a bad time of year for this. We really want to get the word out and hope Congress makes a decision soon."
$40 billion payout
Since July 2008, the federal extensions, which have expired and been re-extended several times, have paid out $40 billion into the hands of the state's long-term jobless. At one time, Californians could qualify for 99 weeks total, but in May of this year, that was dropped to 73 weeks because of improvements to the state's unemployment rate.
State and federal unemployment benefits are identical, anywhere from $40 to $450 a week, depending on a worker's recent quarterly wages.
Between state and federal extension benefits, the EDD has paid $17.1 billion in benefits to Californians in 2011 and $9.3 billion up to August of this year. The EDD reports that it pays out about $284 million a week.
But since the recession began, close to 900,000 Californians have run out of all available benefits, both state and federal.
Last week, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released a report that said extending the current federal benefits through next year would add the equivalent of 300,000 jobs by boosting spending and growth in 2013.
The CBO report said the current extended federal benefits would cost about $30 billion and increase gross domestic product by 0.2 percent by the fourth quarter of 2013. The increase in demand for goods and services created by the unemployed having money to spend would account for about 300,000 full-time jobs.
Modesto resident Jesse Francis, 31, knows exactly where his unemployment money goes already: to food and rent, without anything else to spare.
He has been receiving $157 a week since May, when he lost his job at an auto lube shop. He fears that when the extensions get cut off in December, he won't be able to afford his rent anymore.
"I am hoping I will have a job before then, but I'm not sure," he said. "I'm lost right now. I've lost count of how many jobs I've applied for. Before the recession, I would have said I'll have a job tomorrow. Now, after this, (with) so many people looking for jobs, it's so hard. People are doing the best they can. It's not their fault there aren't jobs out there."
Just not enough jobs
Rowe said while an abrupt end to all extended benefits at the end of the year would be difficult, he doubts it would have a big impact on the state's overall recovery. Still, he said, not all of the people looking for work will be able to find it before they exhaust their claims this year.
"We certainly don't have the jobs in the local economy to absorb all of that demand," he said. "What makes it worse is that this is happening as we are going to our high unemployment season. This is happening at a point where we have the fewest jobs available in the local economy, so it makes it even more difficult for them."
For Furtado, the reality of the difficult situation looms larger and larger as the Dec. 29 deadline approaches. She and her husband, Steven, have been cutting back everywhere they can, cutting coupons and depleting their savings. She said she has applied for jobs all over the state, and even out of state, doing everything from housekeeping to flipping burgers, with no results.
"I know it is a lot of money for (the government) to pay out, but it is being put back in the economy," she said. "We're paying our rent, our bills. If we don't have it, we can't pay, and that hurts everyone. I would ask people to put themselves in our shoes. How would you feed yourself? Pay your bills? I'm not even taking about the luxuries on the holidays. I mean the simplest things."
To compound matters, Steven Furtado lost his farm job last week. While he probably still will qualify for state benefits, it will be for much less than the $196 that Rebecca Furtado receives a week in federal benefits. He got the news of his layoff on the couple's one-year wedding anniversary Friday.
"Happy anniversary how are we going to pay our rent?" she said. "We just don't want to lose everything."
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on www.twitter.com/turlocknow.
How Unemployment Works
Before the recession, most Californians were eligible for a maximum 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits, paid by their employer.
In June 2008, Congress began federal extensions that gave unemployed workers a maximum 73 additional weeks (99 weeks total) of benefits to help during the recession.
In May of this year, the number of federal extensions Californians were eligible for dropped because of improvements to the state's unemployment rate, so they could only receive up to 73 weeks total (between state and federal) of benefits.
On Dec. 29, all of the federal benefits are set to expire nationwide, and everyone eligible or receiving extensions would have their payments stopped on that date.
Congress could still vote to approve another extension of the federal benefits as part of its ongoing "fiscal cliff" negotiations.
Currently some 920,000 people qualify for benefits in California and some 400,000 would lose their benefits when the federal extensions expire.
Some $284 million a week in unemployment is paid out to Californians between state and federal benefits.