Hurricane Evacuee Unemployment Benefits

Unemployment benefits for Katrina and Rita evacuees start coming to an end this weekend. Some public policy officials are calling on Congress to extend the benefits for another 13 weeks. Houston Public Radio's Capella Tucker reports

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At the peak about a couple hundred-thousand evacuees received federal disaster unemployment benefits. Nine months after the storm, that number is down to 83-thousand who have not yet found jobs.

"It's not that we are not trying. There are very few jobs at my age. I can't lift enough weight to be a stock clerk, I can't stay on my feet long enough to be a waitress."

Sharon Bendtsen is living in a FEMA trailer on her property in Louisiana and is currently receiving about 200 dollars a week for unemployment benefits. Bendtsen, who is a school teacher, has been looking for a job ever since returning to New Orleans eight weeks after the storm.

"Our first ray of hope on getting a job is the state recovery district which intends to open 38 schools at the end of August here in New Orleans. I have already applied to them. The job fair for those jobs will not happen until July and the jobs themselves will not start until the end of August."

It's stories like Bendtsen's that have some calling on Congress to extend the federal disaster unemployment benefits. Katrina unemployment benefits have been extended once already. National Employment Law Project Deputy Director Andrew Stetner says there's precedent for extending them again.

"Congress has provided a 26 week of extension of unemployment benefit to especially hard hit populations in the past. For example, after 9-11 a special unemployment program was established for airline workers who had lost their jobs because of the terrorist attacks. This program provided a 39 week extension of unemployment benefits."

About 26,000 Katrina evacuees and about 1,000 Rita evacuees who have been receiving benefits live in Texas. Center for Public Policy Priorities Analyst Don Baylor points out that the unemployment benefits are ending at a time when other programs, such as housing vouchers, are also ending.

"To a large degree Texas has not been fully reimbursed not only for the services provided during Hurricane Katrina, but also for the impact of Hurricane Rita. So for unemployment benefits to end at this point, it would further strain Texas public services."

Baylor says evacuees have had a number of problems trying to get jobs ... including employers reluctant to hire evacuees because they'll be leaving to go back home. Others have had problems getting necessary documents, such as birth certificates and professional licenses, from agencies in Louisiana in order to complete hiring forms in other states. Congress returns next week and public policy analysts say lawmakers could vote then on the legislation to extend the benefits. Capella Tucker, Houston Public Radio News.

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