State forgoes $100M
COLUMBIA -- South Carolina is missing out on nearly $100 million more in federal stimulus dollars for unemployment benefits, and it will be months before out-of-work residents see the money, if they ever do.
Analysis by the National Employment Law Project compiled in February that shows how many people would benefit from the changes and what the cost would be.
Congress tried to entice the states to update the 1930s-era social welfare program by including $7 billion in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. The money is intended to cover more women and part-time and low-wage workers who currently don't qualify for unemployment checks. In South Carolina, the changes could provide nearly 17,000 more jobless residents with benefits.
But South Carolina legislators aren't prepared to change the rules that were drawn up at a time when the workplace was more traditional.
Who could benefit
The federal government has about $100 million available for South Carolina to offer unemployment benefits to more people.
Here is a look at who could benefit:
--Lower-income families: The state would have to update its method for calculating past earnings.
Because of a lag time in reporting, the state does not count the most recent earnings. That makes some of the lowest-paid workers ineligible for benefits because they didn't make enough money to qualify.
--Those with compelling family reasons: This includes people who would qualify for benefits if they left their job to escape an abusive home, care for an immediate family member who is ill or disabled or move with a spouse who was relocated for work. South Carolina already provides benefits for victims of domestic abuse and military job transfers.
--Part-time workers: As it is now, to collect an unemployment check, people must be seeking a full-time job.
But this change would open up benefits to part-time workers, including seasonal employees.
--People with dependents: The unemployed with dependent family members who qualify for benefits would receive $15 more a week to help care for their dependents.
--Unemployed seeking training: Offer benefits to long-term laid-off workers who need additional training.
House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, a Cayce Republican, said it hardly makes sense to add more people to the dole that already is running a projected $1 billion deficit, money that state businesses will have to pay back at some point.
On the flip side, legislators such as Rep. Joe Neal, a Hopkins Democrat, argue for civility and fairness. Employers make contributions for every worker on the payroll to the fund that pays out unemployment benefits, he noted.
"This is not a giveaway," Neal said. "These people have earned this protection. Hundreds of thousands of folk have lost their job through no fault of their own."
The Legislature could have made the necessary changes to get the money when it reconvened last month in a special two-day session to fix an oversight that had blocked other unemployment benefits, but lawmakers wouldn't agree to do so, despite Neal's urging.
Bingham pledged recently that all the changes necessary to collect the additional federal cash will be up for consideration when the Legislature meets in January. The House is expected to take up legislation to overhaul the Employment Security Commission.
The commission has been under fire for its performance during the economic turmoil. It runs the unemployment trust fund, which has been broke since last year. The state has been borrowing money from the federal government to cut the unemployment checks.
The personal toll
Marius Scott and his sister Chiquita Scott said they want the state to tap the additional money because President Barack Obama intended to send help to people who need it when he pushed the stimulus package through Congress. The siblings likely would benefit.
After he was laid off from Bose Corp. more than a year ago, Marius Scott had to move in with his sister and her three children in their Columbia home. He found a part-time job as a contractor and a grounds keeper, but the season change has all but killed his livelihood. He said he was told that he does not qualify for unemployment benefits because his job was part time.
He stopped by military recruitment offices, but he said they told him the military didn't have room for him, even though Scott said he was proud of his resume and thinks his communication technology training is impressive.
Now, he tries to help pay the bills with any handyman job he can get. Some days, he takes his nephew out with their lawn mower and they scour neighborhoods for work.
"It's frustrating," Marius Scott said. "I wake up every day and figure out how I can make a few dollars."
Chiquita Scott was at the unemployment office in Columbia this week to see if she qualifies for the new benefits extension now being offered in the state. If not, the Navy veteran has exhausted her benefits.
She is taking business administration classes at Midlands Technical College because she can't find a job. She has been laid off three times since she lost her last stable job in 2007.
"If you're the last hired, you're the first to go," she said. "I've been working my entire life. I just want a job. I've got bills."
How to get the money
Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director at the New York-based National Employment Law Project, said the state would have to change its law to get the money.
The Legislature would have to alter the way individuals' earnings are calculated in order to open up benefits to more of the unemployed who were earning the lowest salaries, Emsellem said.
He said lawmakers also would chose between providing benefits to two of four groups of people: part-time workers, those who leave work for a compelling family reason such as domestic violence or to care for an ill loved one, workers who need more training to get a job and people with dependants who would get an extra $15 a week in their checks.
The advocacy group projected that the $97.5 million available to South Carolina in the stimulus package would provide benefits for 16,665 unemployed residents for four years, Emsellem said.
The additional benefits, covered by the federal cash, would cost an estimated $23.9 million each year.
After four years, the money would run out and the state would have to either repeal the law changes or start paying to provide the extra benefits. If South Carolina does not use the money, it remains in federal coffers, Emsellem said.
States have until October 2011 to apply for the cash.
Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855 or email@example.com.