WASHINGTON – About 8,000 people who have been jobless for more than six months in the Buffalo area will see their unemployment benefits cut by 10.7 percent next month as sequestration, the automatic budget reductions forced on the country by the president and the Congress, goes into effect.
In addition, a key cleanup project in the Buffalo River has been delayed, and Customs and Border Protection is saying that wait times at border crossings could approach five hours this summer if planned employee furloughs take effect.
Those are the key developments locally a week after Congress allowed the sequestration cuts to take effect.
While Republicans such as Rep. Chris Collins of Clarence on Thursday continued to question whether the Obama administration is executing the cuts in the most draconian way possible, there’s broad agreement that the first who will suffer from them will be those who can afford it the least: the long-term unemployed.
“To cut the benefits of people who have nowhere else to turn is really devastating,” said Jennifer L. Diagostino, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice in Buffalo. “You’re talking about people who need these benefits for the basic necessities to get by.”
The cuts won’t affect state-funded unemployment benefits, which cover the jobless through their first 26 weeks of unemployment. Instead, the cuts affect federally funded extended unemployment benefits, which people can receive if they have been unemployed for between 26 and 54 weeks.
Some 6,340 Erie County residents were on extended unemployment benefits as of the end of last week, as were 1,660 people in Niagara County, said Chris White, assistant director of communications at the New York State Department of Labor, which announced the 10.7 percent cut in benefits on its website.
“If you are receiving federal extended unemployment benefits that start after 26 weeks, the federal government has directed us to reduce your payments by 10.7 percent beginning that first week in April,” the Department of Labor said. “New York State has no control over these cuts in benefits and no ability to waive or reduce the level of cuts.”
Unemployment benefits in New York max out at $405 a week, and any cut to that would “have a huge impact” on people looking for work, Diagostino said.
What’s more, it’s likely to have a huge impact on the economy, given that the long-term unemployed will have less to spend, said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo. “You’re taking demand out of the economy by doing this,” he said.
And that’s just the start of sequestration’s impact.
Higgins said the Environmental Protection Agency has informed his office that it is delaying work on a $50 million project to transform the Buffalo River from an industrial dumping ground to a working waterway where people can swim and fish. Bids on the most substantial part of the project were set to go out this year, but now those plans have been put on indefinite hold.
Work on the project began two years ago, but much remains, and Higgins said he is concerned that any delay will only make things more difficult to complete.
“The consensus plan is based on a vast body of sediment and water samples and other technical data gathered from the field,” Higgins said in a letter to Susan Hedman, Great Lakes National Program manager for the EPA. “We fear that if too much time is allowed to slip, and this technical data is allowed to age, this data will less and less reflect the actual conditions in the river and its bed. In that case, years of planning and the government’s tremendous investment in gathering this data will have been wasted.”
Similarly, Customs and Border Protection is warning that plenty of time will be wasted by drivers this summer thanks to sequestration and its resulting furloughs for workers who staff the customs booths at the Peace Bridge, Rainbow Bridge and Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.
“There will also be greater wait times for personal vehicles and pedestrians at our land border ports, with the doubling of peak waits up to five hours or more at our largest land border crossings,” Customs and Border Protection said in a memo on its website. “Travelers should adjust their trip itineraries to account for unexpected delays.”
That’s the most specific the agency has been so far regarding the border delays, which are expected to develop primarily during the busy travel months of the summer.
“Clearly, we’re concerned about it,” said Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority. “Anything that impedes the free flow of traffic is cause for concern.”
Given the possible delays, Rienas urged travelers to apply for NEXUS trusted-traveler cards, or at least passport cards or enhanced driver’s licenses, to make border crossings easier this summer.
Higgins said the possible border delays are one more example of the Congress’ irresponsible approach to budgeting, but Collins cast a doubtful eye on the warnings about backups at the border.
Collins questioned why Customs and Border Protection – which is planning to furlough workers for a total of 14 days between early April and Sept. 30 – would give workers those unpaid days off in the summer, rather than on the slower travel days of the spring and early fall.
“I believe these are more of President Obama’s scare tactics,” Collins said. “This president is trying to continue to scare the public, to inflict pain where he can to try to get more taxes.”
Obama has demanded more taxes on the wealthy as a part of any plan to replace the sequestration cuts, but so far, at least, it doesn’t look like he’s going to get his way.
The House on Wednesday passed a six-month spending bill locking in the sequestration cuts for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, while keeping taxes steady.
And while Higgins opposed that bill, saying Congress should be focused on promoting economic growth rather than sharply cutting spending, Obama has indicated he’s unlikely to force a confrontation with Republicans on such a temporary spending measure, which must be finalized by March 27 to avoid a government shutdown.
“No one,” Collins said, “wants to shut down the government.”