Protesters lash out at McConnell on unemployment


LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Gail Helinger's job search has come up empty for more than a year, and now the unemployment benefits that have kept the one-time union laborer afloat are about to run out.

Worried everything she has worked for could unravel, Helinger joined labor activists and unemployed workers in lashing out at Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell for a Republican filibuster that blocked an extension of federal jobless benefits.

"I think it's downright cruel," Helinger, 52, said Wednesday, sweat pouring down her face at the Wednesday rally where dozens marched outside the federal courthouse while chanting "Benefits for workers, not Wall Street."

McConnell was the main target as the leader of Senate Republicans, who recently blocked a bill to prolong unemployment payments for people whose state-paid benefits have been exhausted. According to the U.S. Labor Department, the number of people nationwide at risk of losing benefits will top 3 million by the end of July without action by Congress.

The extension would cost $33.9 billion - money that would have been borrowed, adding to the budget deficit.

McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer said Wednesday that the senator supports extending the payments in a "fiscally responsible manner that does not add to our nation's crushing debt." McConnell offered several alternatives, he said, including a two-month extension of benefits paid for with spending cuts once suggested by Democratic senators.

"Unfortunately, each of the senator's suggestions was rebuffed because Senate Democrats refuse to pass a bill that doesn't add to the debt," Steurer said in a statement.

Kentucky's unemployment rate in May was 10.4 percent, compared to 6.1 percent just two years earlier as the state's economy has languished amid the nation's worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Nationally, the unemployment rate was 9.7 percent in May.

Kentucky State AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan called McConnell an obstructionist whose actions will hurt people who were thrown out of work "through no fault of their own."

Nearly 75,000 Kentuckians are at risk of losing their jobless benefits in the next eight weeks if Congress does nothing, said Lanny Brannock, a spokesman for the state Office of Employment and Training. Another 50,000 people who have exhausted their benefits could regain unemployment checks if lawmakers pass an extension.

Londrigan said people losing their unemployment checks face "dire circumstances."

"They are going to be losing their homes, their livelihoods and they're going to be a continual drain on the economy if they don't have unemployment insurance benefits to see them through," he said.

Helinger worries about losing her home near Churchill Downs if her jobless benefits dry up before she finds work. Helinger used to make $17.28 an hour at a company that makes parts for the pipeline industry. Since being laid off, she's reached out to hundreds of employers but has yet to find work.

Helinger and fellow unemployed worker George Boyd walked into McConnell's office in the federal courthouse to express their unhappiness with the senator. McConnell wasn't there, so the duo talked to an aide, who promised to pass along their message to the senator. Helinger said she wanted McConnell to "have compassion for his laid-off constituents."

The aide, Bradley Atzinger, politely assured them that the senator is committed to passing the benefits in a "fiscally responsible manner."

"Well, if he's committed to doing that, he needs to hurry up," Helinger replied.

Boyd, 62, said he received his final unemployment check last week. He receives Social Security, but worries he'll have to drain his savings to make his house payments and pay the other bills without the unemployment checks.

He said he has worked since he was 17, and had a paper route before that, but hasn't worked since being laid off in May 2009 from his job helping job corps students find employment. Now, he's constantly looking for work but jobs are few and the competition is fierce, he said.

"When you're 62, they don't look at you the same way," Boyd lamented.

© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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