CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Imagine getting laid off from your job and struggling to support your family. What will be your first thoughts? How will you make rent or keep up with your mortgage payment? How will you buy groceries and pay the utility bills? Thankfully, unemployment benefits will provide a safety net while you look for work in a tough economy, to ease the financial burden and stress when you fall on hard times.In the aftermath of the Great Recession, this frightening scenario has hit close to home for many West Virginia families. It was just a few years ago that our economy was brought to its knees and millions of workers found themselves out of a job and out of luck. The economic crisis was not only deep, it lasted far longer than anybody expected and many people who yearned to work could not find jobs for years. Even now, the recovery is tentative and sluggish. Yet while it may be hard to imagine, things could have been much worse. Since 2008, more than 24 million Americans have been able to rely on long-term unemployment insurance to stay on their feet until they found their next job and received their next paycheck. Unfortunately, funding for this vital lifeline for jobless workers expired on Dec. 28, and benefits that kept millions out of poverty vanished in the midst of a weak economy. The failure to renew this benefit is now costing a staggering 6,933 West Virginia workers $1,881,408 per week, robbing families of a support system that remains essential to economic survival.In today's economy, nearly three jobless workers apply for each job opening and more than 37 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for at least six months. Numerous studies have shown employers frequently discriminate against the long-term unemployed, leaving far too many West Virginia workers out in the cold. For the families of these job seekers, unemployment benefits represent the difference between total hopelessness and a place to live and food on the table.While many portray unemployment insurance as a handout or giveaway, jobless workers must demonstrate that they are constantly searching for work to receive unemployment benefits. The benefits themselves are very modest, averaging just $300 a week. In West Virginia, the average benefit is even less -- just $271.37 a week.But ensuring these families can make ends meet has been demonstrated to create jobs and boost the economy, since a decline in buying power can send a weak economy into a deeper tailspin.
By not extending unemployment benefits we are robbing businesses of customers and costing the country more than 240,000 jobs, including 1,173 jobs in West Virginia. As the year goes on, the consequences will be even worse when benefits for 3.6 million Americans are scheduled to expire.All of these reasons are why the Congressional Budget Office considers unemployment benefits to be one of the most important and effective economic stimulus programs. Unlike multi-millionaires who receive a tax cut, jobless workers are much more likely to go out and spend that money in the local economy.It is shameful that there was nothing included in the recent budget negotiations to help the millions of people who want to work but cannot find employment. This was coupled with a resistance to close tax loopholes for the corporations that caused our economic crisis.Especially in times of need, our leaders need to fight for good jobs and restore opportunity that grows the economy from the middle class out. Members of Congress have a chance to help thousands of West Virginia families by voting to restore unemployment benefits as they return to work this month.West Virginia families urge our elected leaders to vote to extend unemployment benefits for the hardest hit. Our economy cannot afford for them not to.Perdue is president of the West Virginia AFL-CIO.