PHILADELPHIA -- The stack of message slips measured a quarter-inch thick by late afternoon. Five callers needed mortgage assistance, three needed help with back rent, but most just wanted to know what was going on with the unemployment benefits extension.
Ruth Rilley, a receptionist at the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, had to break the news.
"I told them, nothing's going on," she said.
An estimated 800,000 people lost federal unemployment benefits Dec. 28, leaving them with mounting bills while they wait for Congress to decide how much -- if any -- help is coming.
Nonprofit agencies like the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, as well as states' labor departments, have seen a sharp increase in calls as jobless people coming off a typical 26 weeks of unemployment benefits find they are suddenly on their own.
Congress had approved a 13-week extension of the benefits, but that expired Dec. 28, and lawmakers failed to extend the program again before adjourning last year.
President Bush is to outline his ideas for extending benefits when Congress convenes Tuesday, but he hasn't said if he favors a plan offered by the Senate or a House version that would cover fewer jobless people. House Democrats said Friday they will propose a plan Monday for new benefits and job opportunities that will focus on job creation.
Jobless since July
One of the hundreds of calls to the Philadelphia Unemployment Project came from Jonowyn Murray, who has been unemployed since July and has a 2-year-old and a 13-year-old to feed.
The $226 a week she receives in unemployment expires this coming week.
"I'm not between a rock and a hard place, I'm under the rock," said Murray, 34, who lost her job as a medical claims adjuster following a protracted divorce and custody dispute.
The nation's unemployment rate returned to an eight-year high of 6 percent in November, and economists predict it will hit 6.5 percent in the early part of 2003 before gradually improving.
While that's not as high as the 7 percent rates of the early 1990s, this recession has had a more intense impact on the jobless, said Jeffrey Wenger, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
From September to November, 20 percent of the unemployed had been jobless for more than six months, according to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the comparable period in the 1991 recession, about 15 percent had been jobless more than six months.
"Given that we're only at 6 percent unemployment, to have one-fifth searching for more than six months, that presents a real problem," Wenger said.
About half of the country's state labor departments are continuing to process unemployment extension claims in anticipation that Congress will take action, according to the Department of Labor.
"If Congress passes an extension and makes it retroactive, we'll be able to get the people their payments more quickly," said Brad Collins, a manager for the Arkansas Employment Security Department.
Extra Idaho assistance
Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne authorized his state to continue paying unemployment to about 2,900 residents losing the federal benefits.
"Especially over the holidays, that was an important signal to send," said Mark Snider, Kempthorne's spokesman. Idaho's extension expired Saturday.
Some United Way agencies also have seen a spike in calls for help with rent and childcare in recent weeks, said Mary Strasser, a vice president with the Philadelphia area United Way.
Charlene Williams, 50, is just one among the many callers seeking help. She was searching for permanent work through the Philadelphia Unemployment Project during the past week.
Williams, who has been unemployed since December 2001, said she needs a benefit extension to succeed in getting back into the work force.
"How do you expect to get to an interview without any cash?" she asked.