During a historically dismal job market, South Carolina's elected officials are throwing an extra lifeline -- $97 million in federal stimulus money -- to thousands of workers who couldn't get weekly unemployment benefits after leaving their jobs.

Two of the state's Congressional leaders on Tuesday emphasized the need for that money, which will help pay benefits to workers who were previously ineligible, such as part-time workers and workers who leave their jobs under compelling circumstances.

"We need it and we need it badly," said U.S. Rep. John Spratt, a Democrat who faces re-election this fall.

Spratt was joined by fellow Democrat, Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, and U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis in announcing the funds.

The changes open up the state's pool of unemployment money to groups that some advocates say are left behind: part-time workers, those who leave their jobs to take care of ailing family members or domestic violence victims who feel that going to a job would put them in danger.

Workers who move after a family member relocates to a new job would also be eligible to receive benefits.

More than 17,000 residents throughout South Carolina fit into those categories, according to estimate from the New York-based National Employment Law Project. The first payments won't make it to residents until early next year, once state officials put the program in place.

Clyburn said the money will help ease economic hardship in a state that routinely has one of the country's highest unemployment rates.

"We're doing great things in South Carolina to make jobs available, but not all of these jobs can be found right now in every neighborhood or community," he said. "These funds are going to be very important so people, while they are transitioning, can get some relief and participate in this economic recovery."

Spratt said the additional money could help prop up South Carolina's economy as unemployed workers spend the money on basic needs.

"Thousands of South Carolinians have been out of work for weeks on end," he said.

South Carolina's unemployed residents are eligible for up to 99 weeks of benefits, which is longer than the usual 26 weeks available during normal economic times after federal lawmakers passed a series of extensions.

The $97 million, which state officials do not need to repay, will be put toward the state's pool of unemployment benefit money -- a fund that ran out more than 18 months ago as more workers lost their jobs and applied for unemployment. Since then, South Carolina has borrowed more than $886 million from the federal government to continue paying the weekly benefits.

Following behind 35 other states, South Carolina became one of the last to tap its portion of the $7 billion federal stimulus money marked for broadened unemployment benefits.

To do so, state lawmakers had to make some technical changes. The law passed in the final days of the legislative session this spring, shortly after a massive overhaul of the state agency that administers unemployment benefits.

Reach Katy Stech at 937-5549 or kstech@postandcourier.com.