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Originally published Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 4:06 PM

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Editorial: Congress must act to extend federal unemployment benefits

Long-term unemployment persists statewide. Congress should extend federal emergency benefits so that people can continue to seek work, and Washington state must do more to close the skills gap.

Seattle Times Editorial

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HIGH unemployment still plagues counties throughout Washington, while a widening skills gap keeps too many from getting hired. Federal and state lawmakers must resort to a mix of new and old strategies to solve these problems.

When people don’t work, their health deteriorates. The demand for goods and services is reduced. Communities suffer.

One immediate fix is for Congress to renew a financial lifeline it unwisely let expire on Dec. 28. Since the 2008 recession hit, the federal government has provided emergency assistance to those who could not find work after their state unemployment insurance ran out after 26 weeks. The federal benefits were provided up to an additional 37 weeks.

When lawmakers failed to renew the program, nearly 2 millionAmerican job-seekers were cut off from federal aid, including about 28,000 people in Washington. That number could be even higher now since an additional 11,000 unemployed residents have exhausted their state benefits.

Behind the numbers are individuals and families who are struggling. Read some of their stories on the opposite page to get an idea what they are up against.

On Thursday, after several failed efforts, U.S. Senate members announced a bipartisan deal that would extend and pay for federal unemployment insurance for five months.

Lawmakers are expected to vote on the measure when they return from a weeklong recess. The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives should pass this breakthrough compromise.

At stake are billions in emergency assistance that recipients would spend in their communities as they continue to look for work.

Federal money is necessary because long-term unemployment, which peaked in 2010, remains high, especially in rural areas. Overall, the state reports about 195,000 people have used up all of their state and federal insurance. As of February, more than half were still unemployed.

A few hundred dollars a week helps recipients feed their families, keep the lights on and stay connected to the Internet so they can send out resumes and check job listings. The assistance also helps to offset stress and depression among those struggling to find work.

These Americans are up against myriad challenges and negative perceptions. Older workers suspect a disadvantage when they apply for positions that younger applicants can do for less pay. Some of their jobs have been eliminated. Many have college degrees, but not the specific skills required in today’s job market.

Beyond short-term assistance, more clearly must be done to train Washington’s workforce.

At the federal level, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., should continue to champion a bipartisan effort to update and reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act, which would provide more adults with job-search and training opportunities. U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, secured $200 million in the farm bill to expand the Basic Food, Employment and Training program, which has a track record of getting people jobs and off food stamps.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced this month the state Employment Security Department will invest a $4 million federal grant toward developing strategies with local development councils to get the long-term unemployed back to work.

Inslee points out that many of these workers, despite gaps in their résumés, contributed to the region's economic engine before the recession, and could be just as productive now.

But their struggles underscore the importance of also looking out for the state’s future. Washington legislators must return next session prepared to fund early, basic and higher education in a relevant way that ensures students are ready for the demands of the new economy.

When these kids grow up, they should be well-qualified to fill thousands of anticipated job openings that will need highly-skilled workers. There should be no need for federal unemployment insurance.

This money was intended to be a last resort for struggling job-seekers. But the Great Recession wreaked such long-lasting havoc, millions of Americans need the financial salvation a while longer.

If lawmakers do their jobs right, federal unemployment benefits would be remembered as a temporary program that kept families on their feet in some of the hardest of times.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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