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More jobless aid sought State labor leaders, meeting in Falls, call for federal action

The state labor commissioner warned Thursday that the cost of supporting unemployed workers could fall to state and local governments if federal lawmakers do not extend unemployment benefits.

M. Patricia Smith joined labor leaders from 17 other states to call on Congress to extend unemployment insurance benefits an additional 13 weeks.

"We're here because we are facing an unemployment crisis of epic proportions," said Smith, speaking at the Conference Center Niagara Falls.

A bill that would extend unemployment insurance benefits by 13 weeks in 27 states with the highest unemployment, including New York State, passed the House on Tuesday. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.

The state Department of Labor estimates that 2,100 people in Western New York will exhaust their unemployment benefits by the end of the month if they are not extended. Across the state, as many as 40,000 people are slated to lose unemployment benefits by the end of the month.

Smith cautioned that the cost of those unemployed residents will begin to fall on state and local governments as people turn to welfare and other programs paid for locally when their benefits run out.

"What stories are we hearing about all the time? Rising unemployment, families losing their homes, a jobless recovery," Smith said. "We see them and they're not unique to Buffalo or Niagara Falls. They're being repeated in cities all around the nation."

Jim Zambroski, a Cheektowaga resident who has been unemployed since February, said members of a networking group he attends for those seeking work have already run out of benefits.

"They've had to go to food pantries, churches, and so forth for food," Zambroski said. "These are people who are good, solid Americans that should have jobs."

Zambroski worked as a mechanical design drafting technician for Eastman Kodak for 34 years before his position was eliminated in 2005. A contract for another job he later landed ran out in February.

Unemployed residents in New York State receive 26 weeks of regular unemployment insurance benefits. An additional 53 weeks are now available under extended benefits previously approved.

But that has not been enough for some laid-off workers who already have run out of benefits, the labor leaders said.

Smith estimated there is one job available in New York State for every three unemployed people searching for a job.

"The problem is there are no jobs," said Paul J. Parise, Niagara County employment and training director. "You've got skilled people who are actively looking for jobs who can't find jobs."

The 13-week extension would bring the total benefits available to New York State residents to 92 weeks, if approved.

"This may on the surface appear to be a Band-Aid," said John Lasky, of Lewiston, who has been searching for a job since November. "But the first part of the triage is to stop the bleeding."

Lasky said he has been so diligent searching for a job that the workers at the local unemployment office know him by name. Lasky lost his position as a regional manager for a company that provided vending support to a big-box retailer.

"I think if we don't do this, we may find an increasing amount of people that are on welfare," Lasky said.

If the extension is signed into law, the 13 additional weeks of unemployment benefits would be available to residents in states where unemployment rates are 8.5 percent or higher.

The Buffalo Niagara region's unemployment rate of 8.4 percent during August is the highest for that month in at least 20 years, according to state Labor Department statistics.

The region's unemployment rate has soared over the last two years from 4.6 percent in August 2007 and 5.8 percent in August 2008 as the number of unemployed people in the two-county region has nearly doubled over the last two years. A total of 49,500 people in the region were unemployed last month, up from 26,700 in August 2007 and 34,700 in August 2008.

Unemployment has increased as the region has been hit with steep job losses over the last year, costing nearly 14,000 jobs.

The labor leaders, including representatives from Michigan, Oregon, Montana, Wisconsin, Kansas and 12 other states, were in Niagara Falls on Thursday for the National Association of State Work Force Agencies annual conference.

In addition to the 13-week extension, Smith and other labor leaders said they would like to see the federal government pass additional legislation that would allow all states to take advantage of the 13-week extension and that would grant a 20-week extension for high-unemployment states like New York.

"We're asking the leadership of this country to act and to act quickly," said Karen Turner Lee, Washington State Department of Labor and Industries commissioner.

News Business Reporter David Robinson contributed to this report.

-mail: djgee@buffnews.com

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