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Many unemployed South Carolinians are using up their 20 weeks of state jobless benefits

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DEW unemployment claim (copy)

More than 71,000 people in South Carolina have used up their 20 weeks of state unemployment eligibility and are now trying to pull money from federal jobless programs. File. 

Tens of thousands of South Carolinians have already burned through 20 weeks of state unemployment aid this year as the coronavirus pandemic drags on and the economic recovery continues to slow. 

Data released by the U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday shows more than 71,000 idled workers in the state have used up their five months of eligibility. 

Those people can no longer pull money from the state's unemployment trust fund, which is managed by the S.C. Department of Employment Workforce. 

But they are continuing to claim benefits from two other federal programs that provide up to 23 weeks of additional financial support. 

In fact, more South Carolinians are now relying on those aid programs — called Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation and Extended Benefits — than the number of people seeking unemployment payments from the state. 

That means the federal government is picking up a bigger chunk of the money going to unemployed South Carolinians. 

Last week, the state unemployment trust fund paid out roughly $10.1 million to unemployed individuals, while more than $16.5 million was disbursed through the federal programs that offer extended benefits. 

The U.S. government also picked up the tab for another $8.9 million that went to contractors, self-employed people and so-called gig workers, who were allowed to collect unemployment payments for the first time earlier this year. 

South Carolina previously provided up to 26 weeks of assistance, like many other states do. But state leaders cut the benefit period to 20 weeks following the Great Recession to limit how much money was being withdrawn from the system. 

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Jamie Suber, DEW's chief of staff, said the state employment agency has not had any discussions this year with Gov. Henry McMaster or lawmakers about moving the eligibility back to 26 weeks. 

The roughly 71,000 South Carolinians who have used up their state aid this year highlights how many people were forced out of work during the early part of the pandemic and have yet to find a new job to return to. 

Joey Von Nessen, a research economist at the University of South Carolina, said the unemployment picture in South Carolina is a "double-edged sword" right now. 

The number of new layoffs in South Carolina continues to decline. But the number of people using up their 20 weeks of state unemployment eligibility shows that many workers who were laid off in the spring don't have jobs to return to. 

The long-term unemployment numbers in South Carolina fit with the larger economic trends nationwide. 

Federal survey results from September estimated there were 2.4 million Americans who had been unemployed for more than 27 weeks, making them what economists classify as the "long-term unemployed." Their numbers are growing quickly as the country struggles to recoup the number of jobs it had in January and February. 

Earlier this year, many South Carolina officials suggested people were not returning to work because the federal government was chipping in an extra $600 per week for every person receiving unemployment assistance.  That extra money ran out in July. 

Since then, the number of people claiming some form of unemployment aid has declined slightly. But there were still more than 200,000 people trying to collect either state or federal benefits in early October. 

The most recent employment survey estimated there are still 65,000 fewer people employed in South Carolina in September than there were in March.

Anyone receiving payments through the state or federal unemployment programs now is living on $326 per week, or less, depending on what they earned before they lost their job. 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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