James Sherk, a labor policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said ending the extensions could induce workers to take jobs they might have overlooked initially. Extended unemployment benefits can give workers "a false sense of how much time they have before they have to start broadening their net to less than ideal positions," he said, adding that the labor market, while not ideal, is stronger and continues to improve.
In November, the country's unemployment rate fell to a five-year low of 7 percent, but is still above the 5 percent to 6 percent rate that would signal a normal job market. And long-term unemployment remains a problem for the economy as nearly 4.1 million Americans have been out of work for six months or more.
Deborah Barrett, a 57-year-old resident of Newport, R.I., is one of them. She was laid off from her management job in accounting in February and has sent out hundreds of resumes since. She said doesn't know how she'll get by without the federal assistance.
"It's petrifying," she said. "Unfortunately, I don't believe my story is very unique."
Laura Garay, 57, pawned her jewelry, withdrew retirement funds and relied on support from friends after losing her paralegal job in May, the same month she was diagnosed with lymphoma.
Her monthly $1,700 in unemployment covers her house payment in Westminster and the cost of maintaining her health insurance to cover a barrage of exams and radiation therapy.
Garay said her illness set back her job search, but as long as she's healthy, she'll work at just about anything to get back on her feet and avoid being jobless for too long.
"You don't find a job in two weeks, you don't find a job in three weeks," she said. "You find a job after months of searching."
Rugaber reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper in Salem, Ore. and Erika Niedowski in Providence, R.I. contributed to this report.
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