PITTSFIELD -- Starting next week, Berkshire County residents on federal extended unemployment will see benefits shrink an average of $200 per week, according to the director of the BerkshireWorks Career Center.
Federal budget cuts triggered by the sequester that went into effect March 1 are driving the 12.8 percent benefits cut for people enrolled in the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program. People receive 50 percent of their last wage up to $656 a week through EUC.
On average, the cut represents a $200 reduction in weekly unemployment checks, according to John Barrett III. The cuts do not affect the state unemployment program.
"Obviously, it's going to have a pretty big impact when some people could be losing up to $800 per month in unemployment benefits," Barrett said, "and some of these people are long-term unemployed."
The number of jobless persons in Berkshire County who will be affected by the pending cut in EUC benefits could not be ascertained Tuesday, but 4,976 were collecting unemployment compensation locally as of February, according to the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board. A total of 572 initial unemployment claims were filed in the Berkshires in February, while 2,674 continued claims were filed, according to BCREB.
In 2011, Congress passed a law known as the "sequester," which calls for budget cuts to most federal programs. Massachusetts is required by federal law to implement the reduction. The EUC is a temporary federal program created in 2008 to provide benefits funded solely by the federal government for people whose regular state unemployment compensation has expired, usually after 26 weeks.
In addition to the 12.8 percent reduction in benefits, those receiving EUC benefits will also see a corresponding reduction in their EUC account balances. The reductions will last through Sept. 29, when the U.S. Department of Labor intends to reassess the situation.
"One of the reasons Massachusetts is being hit so hard is because our unemployment rate has dropped [to 6.4 percent], and the economy is improving," Barrett said. "That's what the federal government looks at."
As of early March, 1.8 million people -- or 15 percent of the country's unemployed workers -- received 100 percent federally funded unemployment insurance benefits, according to the Washington Post.
Unlike the extended benefit program, which is available only in Alaska, the EUC is available to residents of all states, although the duration varies depending on each state's unemployment rates. The EUC currently provides a maximum of 47 weeks of benefits.
Barrett said the federal government has sent notices to Berkshire residents who will be affected by the cuts in the EUC program.
A counselor at BerkshireWorks said the affected individuals are bracing for the impact.
"The reduction in their benefits hasn't happened yet, but they all know that it's coming," said work force counselor Bill Murray. "They have a hard time understanding the sequestration like most ordinary people do."
Murray said he hears "a lot of frustration now" from the people he advises.
"Their unemployment benefits are not even close to what they were making when they were working, and now they're being cut even lower," Murray sad. "Those don't come down just because the paycheck does. They're still trying to struggle with keeping kids in school, and with car payments, all the things that ordinary people deal with.
"This just intensifies it, and makes it more difficult."