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Foster leads discussion on unemployment insurance

JOLIET – Ann Marie Schmidt is the single mother of two children, both of whom have a rare kidney disease.

That makes her life tough enough, she said. But adding the fact that she is unemployed because of an illness and a long-term disability doctors won’t acknowledge, it creates a situation of uncertainty that brought her to tears Friday morning.

“I have zero income now,” Schmidt said, claiming her unemployment insurance ended with the federal emergency unemployment compensation program on Dec. 28. “So it’s kind of hard to make it.”

Schmidt was one of four unemployed workers who spoke to union leaders and U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, in a panel discussion on unemployment in the state and Will County on Friday at Teamsters Member Hall.

Foster led the discussion and told panel members about his disappointment that Congress has not extended the unemployment program, which led to the end of unemployment insurance for 1.3 million people nationwide.

The federally funded unemployment assistance program was created June 30, 2008, and it was modified several times, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 extended the program’s expiration date to Jan. 1, 2014.

U.S. Senate members have been working on an extension after it expired, but the House of Representatives has been hesitant to work a deal, Foster said.

“It’s a huge source of frustration for me that this is being blocked,” Foster said, referencing House Republicans’ unwillingness to bring a proposal to extend unemployment benefits.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Channahon, said he recognizes the economy isn’t growing or creating enough jobs to get people back to work, spokesperson Patrick Ptak said. But Kinzinger thinks the best form of assistance to the unemployed is enabling the creation of new, well-paying jobs through pro-growth policies.

“Should a fiscally responsible agreement that extends the emergency unemployment program pass the Senate, Rep. Kinzinger will consider it,” Ptak said.

While the United States’ workforce is at 6.6 percent unemployment, Illinois has a 8.3 rate.

“There’s a huge spread of industries that have been hit,” Foster said, citing unemployed residents who have told him their stories of scraping for work. “The building trades are the worst hit. I’ve even heard from software programmers that lost their jobs. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

“You feel like walls are constantly being put up,” Schmidt said about her search for a job and the end of her unemployment benefits. But she said she might be close to finding a job.

Matt Mejia grew up in Joliet and worked as a carpenter and built homes until 2006. Since then, he transitioned to commercial construction and development, but has been unemployed since mid-September.

“If it wasn’t for major oil refineries and power plants, we’d be in dire straights,” said Mejia, who is supporting a wife and child. “At this point, my income is unemployment.”

Mejia said he felt lucky to have had his unemployment claim reopened, so he’s getting the benefits.

SMART Local Union 265 business representative Don Moran reminded the panel that it is not only workers who were affected by unemployment.

“The impact that this has had on families can’t be overstated,” Moran said. “To pull a rug out from underneath them, it’s just unconscionable.”

Foster told constituents he is working on a resolution to extend the expired benefits, but the major step is for the Senate to pass the extension and put heat on House Republicans.

“They have a mindset now that unemployment insurance is for the undeserving poor,” Foster said, saying unemployment benefits were not a partisan issue before the Tea Party started influencing the Republican Party base. “But I think Republicans will negotiate when they hear the stories of their own unemployed constituents.”

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