States, federal government reduce length of jobless benefits

Hundreds of thousands of jobless Americans are losing their federal unemployment benefits earlier than they expected due to new rules passed in February that make it harder for states to qualify for extended jobless aid, the New York Times reports.

At the height of the recession, Congress passed a law to boost unemployment assistance to up to 99 weeks: The unemployed would receive federal money instead of state funds if they continued to be jobless past the traditional period of six months. In February, Congress extended this law, but added rules that would draw down the number of weeks the government would pay for, based on whether a state's jobless rate had decreased and other factors. Now, only three states still offer 99 weeks of assistance, and all three will stop doing so in September.

[Related: Florida the stingiest state for jobless benefits]

More than 5 million Americans have been out of work for more than six months, down from a high of more than 6 million two years ago. Supporters of extending benefits say they stimulate the economy and provide a crucial safety net for vulnerable workers, but those opposed say they discourage people from finding work.

Meanwhile, some states, independently of the federal government, have made it more difficult for people to receive jobless benefits. The National Employment Law Project (NELP), a nonprofit that advocates for more support for unemployed people, filed suit against Florida, saying it wrongfully denied people jobless benefits. The group says only 15 percent of eligible people are receiving unemployment assistance in the state, the lowest rate in the nation. This is due in part to a new law passed last year that requires unemployed people to take an online "skills test" before qualifying to receive the roughly $275 per week in benefits, the Miami Herald reported. The state's unemployment rate has fallen to 8.7 percent from 10.6 percent a year ago.

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Unemployment insurance is paid for by a tax on employers, and only people who were let go through no fault of their own are eligible to receive the funds. Some states also tax employees to fund the benefits.

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