Activists laud Casey for stance on benefits

By:  Rich Howells

SCRANTON – Hours before President Barack Obama announced the extension of unemployment benefits for workers across the country, a small group of local activists and unemployed workers told their stories in front of Senator Bob Casey’s (D) Scranton office on Lackawanna Avenue Tuesday morning, urging Washington to do just that.

“We are standing in front of Senator Casey’s office in support of him going to Washington to help us get unemployment benefits restored and to help us with the jobless situation in northeastern Pennsylvania. Our country is facing a job crisis. This crisis will not be solved by cutting the deficit. If that is our leaders’ focus, we’ll face job crisis for years longer than is absolutely necessary,” explained Roxanne Pauline, organizer for NEPA Citizens In Action.

Pauline, who presented the senator’s office with over 100,000 signatures of citizens asking to extend benefits, said that many people she spoke with felt ashamed to be on unemployment, with many blaming themselves instead of Washington.

“People in northeast Pennsylvania are very shy and very proud. It’s been difficult getting unemployed people to come out and admit they need help. We’re here to speak on behalf of them today,” she said.

Brandon Quigley,a 31-year-old Eynon resident and member of Sheet Metal Workers Local 44, said that he has been laid off for the last 52 weeks and, before Obama’s announcement, did not expect to find out until just before Christmas if he could continue collecting at his current amount.

“Walk in my shoes. In one week I’m making $1,100, the next I’m making half of what I used to make. I can’t go out and just apply for a job. I get hired at a union hall, so for me to go take a job at a Wal-Mart for minimum wage isn’t worth it,” Quigley said as he held a sign that read “Time Is Runnin’ Out.”

Married with two children, Quigley added that his healthcare costs more than minimum wage, and he is far from the only one in his union struggling this holiday season.

“I know it’s going to be a tough Christmas for a lot of my local members. Unemployment pumps a lot of money back to the people. Even in this economy, for every dollar they get, they spend $2,” he said. “With 15 million people out of work, I don’t see how you can’t pass this.”

James Luby, a 46-year-old Scranton resident, said he worked for a small restaurant that closed due to the economy in late 2007 and has been collecting on and off since 2008. In that time, he worked several part-time and temporary jobs, including a job with the Census Bureau. Nothing, he said, has sustained a permanent living.

“When you talk about cutting the deficit, you talk about cutting spending. Spending is what drives the economy. When you pump money into unemployment compensation, the people who receive it put that money right back into the community,” Luby said, holding a sign that read, “Senator Casey, We Are Counting On You – Tell D.C. We Need Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.”

Luby was critical of Republicans, who he said are more concerned about tax cuts for the rich.

“Conservatives like to say that they support small business. Well, here’s the opportunity to do so. Extend unemployment benefits to make sure that people can have money to spend and keep the local economy going,” Luby said.

“It’s trickle up economics.”

Shannon Lynett, field representative for Casey, invited the delegation upstairs to accept the petitions and listen to their individual stories. While she could not speak on behalf of the senator, she pointed to Casey’s recent statement on November 30.

“After today, two million Americans and 83,000 Pennsylvanians are forced to worry about losing vital support next month that helps them keep food on the table and pay their bills,” Casey wrote. “I urge my Senate colleagues to allow for this extension to pass, preventing families and the economy from suffering.”

In a speech on Monday night, President Barack Obama said he would appease Republican demand for an extension of George W. Bush-era tax cuts in exchange for the extension of unemployment benefits.

In a release from the White House on Tuesday, a framework agreement was announced that “secures vital tax relief and investments in our workers that will create jobs and accelerate economic growth.”

Under the agreement, unemployment benefits are extended at their current level for 13 months, and middle class families will not lose tax cuts that would have expired on January 1, 2011. Over two million jobless workers were slated to lose unemployment benefits this month if Congress did not extend them.