Lisa Cicchinelli lost her job last June.
After more than six months of fruitless job searching, on Dec. 28 she was one of 127,000 jobless state residents to lose her long-term unemployment benefits.
“It hasn’t been easy,” she said. “Our furnace went out over the holidays. We weren’t sure we could pay for repairs.”
The Loudonville resident was one of two members of the local unemployed population to meet with U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, and state Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, in Albany’s Hudson River Coffee House on Sunday afternoon.
The meeting was Tonko’s attempt to put faces to jobless statistics in the hopes those faces might convince his fellow members of Congress to extend unemployment benefits.
The state government subsidizes up to 26 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits for people who lose their jobs. In 2008, the federal government enacted a program to extend those benefits.
The program expired Dec. 28, dropping available benefits from 63 weeks to just 26. A divided Congress did not pass an extension, which put Cicchinelli and 1.3 million other Americans in financial straits.
Ever since she lost her job as an administrative assistant at a local doctor’s office, she’s been looking for work — a process she described as maddening.
“You apply,” she said. “Then you hear you made the first round, then the second, then the third, then you get an email that says, ‘Thank you for applying, but ...’”
East Greenbush resident Laurie Curthoys, another jobless local, commiserated.
“I was excited to come out today because I finally had an excuse to wear something besides sweats and a T-shirt,” she said.
Curthoys took a few days off from her Pizza Hut job for knee surgery. While she was away, the restaurant closed. That was more than a year ago. She still can’t find work and for the last few weeks, hasn’t gotten any benefits. At this point, she’s not sure how to pay her bills.
Cicchinelli and Curthoys talked with Tonko and Fahy as baristas frothed cappuccinos for circulating customers and journalists snapped pictures. Someone ordered a bagel and the place filled with the smell of toasting grains.
“It’s degrading,” Cicchinelli said. “I’ve been doing everything right. I’m getting career training. I spend every minute looking for work and people in government are saying long-term unemployment benefits make people lazy. I’d rather be working. Who would want this?”
By midyear, Tonko said another 1.9 million Americans will lose long-term benefits, 133,000 of whom live in New York. He said Congress could have extended the federal benefits program for three months had it approved a piece of legislation before the holiday recess, blaming the delay on senseless bickering.
“The real problem here is Republican leadership in the House,” he said.
Reached by phone after Tonko’s event, U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, said the issue of jobless benefits has not been ruled by party politics.
While senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both New York Democrats, support extending benefits in the Democratic-controlled Senate, Gibson said nothing binding has yet passed. Thus, he said it’s not just the Republican House slowing things up.
That said, Gibson is in favor of a federal extension of unemployment benefits.
“I grew up in a working-class family,” he said. “My father was laid off. I know how important this help is.”
Gibson said he and six other House Republicans drafted a letter to the leadership advocating for an extension. House Speaker John Boehner, Gibson said, is open to discussion.
“A lot of people think we only need to extend benefits,” he said, “Or we only have to grow the economy and everything will be fine. We need to do both.”
He said the federal long-term unemployment benefit program should be approved again, but should include strategies for job creation agreed upon by both sides of the aisle.
Cicchinelli said she’d love to get benefits again, but either way she’s graduating from the Bryant and Stratton Professional Skills Center in April as a certified cardiac technician. It’s a growing field, and she has high hopes.