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Dems seek state relief for unemployed

January 9, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
More than 500,000 people nationwide lost their jobs in December. The jobless rate rose to 7.2 percent, a 16-year high. But relief could soon be on the way.With California's 8.4 percent jobless rate expected to surge even higher, Democrats are targeting help toward the more than 1.5 million people out of work.

One proposal would use the last four to six months of a worker's wages, when they typically earn the most money, to calculate unemployment checks. Right now, the state looks back even further, making many seasonal workers ineligible.

The other proposal would allow Californians to earn $200 per week in part-time pay before deducting that income from their benefits -- it's currently the first $25.

"Both of these provide real economic stimulus, helping unemployed Californians pay their rents and mortgages, feed their families, pay their bills and keep contributing to local economies," said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles).

If California started recalculating unemployment benefits based on recent wages, more people could be eligible or possibly get bigger checks.

It will also help the state qualify for $900 million in one-time federal help.

Part of the money could be used to modernize the state's 30-year-old unemployment system, including the benefits helpline. It can't handle the record 2 million calls per day that come in now.

"It's a mess," said job-seeker Theresa Ocampo. "It's frustrating. I've been trying to get through for the last two weeks."

That $900 million could also help boost the state's unemployment fund, which will run out of money before the end of the month.

"The most important thing for claimants to know is their benefits will continue to be paid," said Loree Levy, California Employment Development Department. "It's just a matter of where's the money going to come from."

California has already asked Washington for a $2-billion loan to beef up its unemployment fund, but the $900 million is preferred because it doesn't have to be paid back.

Democrats hope to fast track their bills and send them to the governor's desk by the end of the month.


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