By Claudia Buck
cbuck@sacbee.com
Published: Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

Four more weeks. For thousands of out-of-work Californians, that could be all that’s left of federal unemployment benefits.

Like so many issues teetering on the edge of the “fiscal cliff,” unless Congress acts, the extra federal aid – which at one point stretched unemployment pay up to 99 weeks in California – will end on Dec. 29.

Letters from the state Employment Development Department have already gone out to nearly 350,000 California recipients of federal unemployment benefits, alerting them to the potential halt to their payments.

Overall, an estimated 2 million jobless Americans could be affected.

“It’s a rude awakening,” said Antwaun Billoups, a supervisor at the OneStop Career Center and EDD office on 50th Street in Sacramento.

“If Congress doesn’t step in, it’s going to be pretty bad,” said Billoups, who sees 200 to 300 people a day come through the career center’s doors for various types of job assistance. “A lot of people depend on help while working to find a job.”

They include the long-term jobless like Samuel Borba, an unemployed beekeeper, who’s been collecting $308 every two weeks in federal benefits – “not even half of what I was earning” while working.

He’s had some part-time warehousing and landscaping jobs, but has found nothing permanent since being laid off in November 2011. “I’d much rather work … but there’s no jobs,” the 48-year-old said, standing in the career center lobby with his girlfriend.

Facing the imminent loss of his benefits, Borba lamented the timing: “Why do this right before Christmas? Without it, we can’t make it.”

The EDD says 346,300 Californians are currently getting the extra payments, which kick in after people exhaust their 26 weeks of state-paid unemployment. By year’s end, EDD expects nearly 400,000 will qualify for the extended federal benefits.

Since July 2008, those federal extensions, which have expired and been re-extended several times, have paid out $40 billion into the hands of the state’s long-term jobless.

State and federal unemployment benefits are identical, anywhere from $40 to $450 a week, depending on a worker’s recent quarterly wages. It’s designed to help recipients pay the rent, buy the groceries and cover the bills while looking for work.

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