When Ilyas Yousufi lost his job as a software engineer at WorldCom Inc. on June 28, it was only the beginning.
By the end of the summer, he said, his $500,000 retirement plan had evaporated along with WorldCom's share price. Stock options he had purchased for $75,000 back in April were also all but worthless.
But as long as his $368 unemployment insurance checks kept arriving each week, Yousufi said, he and his wife -- a medical resident who earns less than $40,000 a year -- were able to make ends meet for themselves and their two school-age sons, though just barely.
As of today, however, those checks are history, and Yousufi, along with nearly 800,000 other unemployed Americans, including more than 22,000 in Virginia, Maryland and the District combined, will be cast off the public dole into the chill of a stagnating economy.
"Even with the checks it was a struggle to get by," said Yousufi, 48, who immigrated to the United States from Pakistan 25 years ago and lives in Gaithersburg. "Every day I send in four or five job applications, but nothing has worked out. I don't know what we are going to do."
Before its holiday recess, Congress could not agree on details of an unemployment benefits extension that both parties said they favored. As a result, the Temporary Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which had provided an extra 13 weeks of assistance for people who had already used up their standard 26 weeks of state benefits, will cease, at least until Congress returns Jan. 7.
Those who had begun receiving -- but had not exhausted -- their 13-week extension will be cut off today. And beginning tomorrow, an additional 95,000 unemployed people will reach the end of their regular benefits each week, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The changes come despite a rising unemployment rate that climbed to 6 percent in November, the highest level in nine years. Economists say it could soar even higher for December.
"The congressional leadership showed that they just don't get it," said Maurice Emsellem, public policy director of the National Employment Law Project. "This is hurting plenty of people, and it didn't have to be this way."
Linda Bissinger-Crall of Philadelphia got her last benefit check yesterday after speaking to some 50 other unemployed people, activists and clergy members during an afternoon rally at the Career Links Center. The former department store retail manager has been out of work since June, when she lost her job, separated from her husband and lost her best friend to cancer.
When she's not out looking for work, Bissinger-Crall, a 48-year-old single parent, focuses her energy on her 11-year-old son, who may be handling all of the turmoil better than she is. "I am sad, stressed and exhausted, but thankfully kids are more resilient," she said.
The rally was sponsored by the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, an activist group. Labor advocates have stepped up their efforts in recent weeks to pressure Congress to extend the benefits. The AFL-CIO, which comprises about 65 unions, held a conference call yesterday to give unemployed members from several states an opportunity to tell their stories.
Christine L. Owens, director of public policy for the AFL-CIO, said Congress should provide benefits not only for those cut off today and in coming weeks, but for the 1 million unemployed people who exhausted their temporary benefits earlier this year.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say the benefits should have been extended because of the struggling economy. The program, established in March, was similar to a series of benefits extensions provided during the recession in the early 1990s. It draws from a $24 billion federal emergency unemployment fund and is designed to provide relief for the long-term unemployed and a stimulus during an economic downturn.
In November, the Senate passed a bill that would have extended the program until March 29, at a cost of $5 billion. The House version cost $900 million. A compromise could not be reached before Congress recessed, shortly before Thanksgiving.
"What happened is very simple: the House passed a bill, the Senate passed a bill, and they weren't reconciled," said one House Republican aide, who added that if Congress acts quickly in early January to extend benefits "it is possible that disruptions to those cut off on December 28 will be minimal."
But House Democrats say the Republican leadership should have ensured that an extension was passed. The White House is also to blame for not pressuring the Republicans to act, they added.
"I think it's a kind of a hard-headedness on their side and a failure of the president to encourage any action," said Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.). "Instead of responding to political pressures they should respond to the needs of human beings."
President Bush, in his Dec. 14 radio address, said that extending the benefits program should be "a first order of business" for Congress after the recess. Many Democrats, though, said the president's call came too late.
Democratic and Republican House members have recently floated tentative new proposals.
The Democratic plan, to be sponsored by Reps. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), would allow those cut off in December to finish out their 13 weeks of benefits and provide them with an additional 13 weeks. It would also offer 13 weeks of benefits to those whose temporary benefits expired earlier in the year and to those whose regular benefits will begin expiring tomorrow.
Republican leaders have called the Democratic plan unfocused and too expensive, and they have launched two competing proposals in recent weeks. The first, sponsored by Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), would extend the temporary benefits program through June 1, providing 19 weeks of extra benefits to those whose state benefits expire between now and then, plus an additional 13 weeks of benefits to people in "high-unemployment states."
A second proposal, from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), is less extensive, allowing those whose 13-week extended benefits were cut off today to receive their remaining payments, and offering additional benefits only to people in 16 states where unemployment levels are above 5.5 percent.
One of those high-unemployment states is Michigan. Jim DeLuca, business representative of Local 58 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Detroit, said that more than 1,000 of his union's 6,500 members are unemployed and that up to 40 percent of them will lose their benefits today. Even if Congress ultimately extends benefits again and applies them retroactively, he said, people living paycheck to paycheck will be struggling in the meantime.
Last week, DeLuca tapped into union funds and sent $25 grocery store gift certificates to all of his unemployed members so they could have a proper Christmas dinner. "Now we will all wait to see what happens," DeLuca said.
"Whatever they decide, I hope they do it quickly," said Cassandra Bridgeforth, 50, of Baltimore, who is four weeks into her extended benefits. Her retirement has been eaten up by bills and the cost of caring for her 13-year-old grandson, Justin, who lives with her.
"The temp agency won't even return my calls anymore," she said.
Bridgeforth followed the debate in Congress this fall and said she contacted Maryland's Democratic Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski at least four times to ask for their help. "They both tried, but nothing came of it," Bridgeforth said. "It really makes it difficult when I know that the members of Congress got to go home to a wonderful Christmas. For me it was like, 'Christmas? What Christmas?' "