Uncertain holidays for those facing cutoff of jobless benefits

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

PHILADELPHIA -- A Christmas tree is on display in Linda Bissinger's home, but she expects few presents to appear beneath it. Though eager for seasonal cheer, she heads into the holidays angry, uncertain and out of work.

As of Dec. 28, Bissinger will no longer receive the unemployment compensation benefits as a result of congressional inaction. The money has sustained her since she lost her job at a clothing store in June -- a dismissal that came just days after her husband left her.

"We went from being a two-income household to a no-income household," she said. "It's my first holiday season as a single mom."

Bissinger, who lives in northeast Philadelphia with her 11-year-old son, Adam, is one of more than 750,000 out-of-work Americans who will lose unemployment benefits three days after Christmas.

With the national jobless rate at 6 percent -- it hasn't been higher since 1994 -- finding work is tough. Bissinger, 47, recently took a test for a position with the Internal Revenue Service, but her job search is challenging because her auto insurance payments have lapsed and she can't use her car.

'Scared to spend a penny'

Bissinger started getting unemployment benefits of $362 weekly at the end of June, and thought that she, like other people who lost their jobs earlier in the year, would receive a 13-week extension after six months. But Congress recessed in November without renewing the extension program and news of the unexpected cutoff came in a terse form letter received the day before Thanksgiving.

"They ruined my Thanksgiving, they ruined my Christmas," Bissinger said. "I haven't bought a Christmas present -- I'm scared to spend a penny."

The only positive, Bissinger said, is that "at this time of year, they're not going to cut off my gas and electricity."

Adam is fully aware of his mother's difficulties, and said he understands that holiday celebrations will be different this year.

"It's hard for everyone," he said. "But if me and my mom work together, we'll have a happy Christmas."

Fellow Philadelphian Chris Ritzau will have his unemployment benefits cut off on Dec. 28, but as a single man he is less worried.

"If people were given the ability to use unemployment benefits for the rest of their lives, there's a certain number who would," said Ritzau, 31. "There are times when Congress has to say no."

Ritzau, a Navy veteran who has worked with various defense contractors, lost his job with Oracle Corp. in March. While hunting for work, he has used the extra time to study international relations and fitness training.

"I've enjoyed being able to sleep in, go to school, do whatever I wanted to," he said. "But I don't see unemployment as something you want to stay on too long. It can make you lazy."

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