Legislative assistant Christina Hughes lost her job at the State Capitol a year ago.

Since then, she's taken the bar exam, used her 401(k) to pay bills and attended countless job fairs while applying for jobs nonstop. Still no luck.

Her unemployment benefits expire in two weeks. Determined to find work, any work, Hughes took her law degree off her resume and is now applying at temp agencies, restaurants and retailers. She's trying not to panic.

"There are still 300 applicants for some of the jobs I am applying for, ... so looking has been painful," she said. "There are not a lot of full-time jobs available."

Hughes is one of 5.7 million Americans, including 43,149 in Minnesota, whose federal unemployment benefits will begin to expire Jan. 1 unless Congress extends them for at least another year.

U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said Wednesday she's spoken to many people like Hughes and is urging congressional Republicans to extend benefits without several proposed restrictions.

"I've met many unemployment insurance claimants," Solis said. "They are not freeloaders. They are hard-working people. Cutting their lifeline as the holidays approach is not worthy of this great nation."

Without the extension, Hughes knows tougher times are ahead. Her $330 weekly unemployment check helped pay student loans, health care expenses and not much more.

"This is not your mom's job search and this is not even your job search from just 10 years ago,'' said HIRED employment counselor Cindy Eskandary. With new technology and social media changing so rapidly it's nearly impossible for those lacking computer skills to find work, she said.

There are 13.3 million unemployed Americans actively looking for work. Nearly 200,000 of them live in Minnesota. Last week, 32 of them piled into a room at the Minnesota Workforce Center in St. Paul to hear job search counselor David Magy give pointers on aggressive job hunting.

"I'm terrified. I don't want to lose my house," said Jenn Lee, who lost her sales and marketing job a little more than a year ago. She's taken classes, applied online and now is in a job club where networking is emphasized. She hopes to land a job soon, because her second round of unemployment expires soon. She has one message for Congress: "Help the people who help you get elected. We need your help."

In Washington, the Republican-controlled House this week passed a bill to extend the payroll tax cut, which is also set to expire at year's-end. Both parties agree the extension would keep money in the pockets of consumers, giving the economy a boost. The bill also would extend unemployment benefits for some of the unemployed but would reduce the maximum number of weeks of benefits that a worker could receive.

Democrats oppose the bill, which also contains unrelated provisions, from cuts in health care spending to support for building a controversial oil pipeline. The end-of-the-year pileup of legislation in a polarized Congress makes the outcome for unemployment benefits hard to predict.

But even in less-complicated times, state and federal rules on unemployment benefits are difficult to understand.

Complicated program

Lee Nelson, chief counsel for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, sympathizes. The unemployment benefits program was designed in 1936 to be temporary, Nelson said. But the nation's current unemployment problem is massive and long lasting.

"So you are asking this program, which was never designed for [years of high unemployment], to fix this situation," Nelson said. "It's a square peg in a round hole."

Unemployment benefits come from both the state and the federal governments. They vary both by state policy and a state's unemployment rate.

In Minnesota, newly laid-off employees get 26 weeks of regular state-funded unemployment benefits. Those benefits are not at risk.

After state benefits are exhausted, federal emergency unemployment benefits normally would kick in. If Congress does not extend benefits, the three tiers of emergency federal benefits will come to an end. The tiers now provide for 20 weeks, then 14 weeks and then 13 weeks of emergency benefits.

On top of that, Minnesota offers another, and final, 13 weeks of benefits if the state's three-month jobless average stays above 6.5 percent.

Without an extension, all three of the federal tiers will expire. People receiving Minnesota's special 13 weeks of benefits also would stop receiving that check after around Jan. 21.

"Unless Congress changes the law, no money will be available after January" for the federal emergency programs, Nelson said.

But extending eligibility for unemployment benefits at a time when the nation remains burdened with debt exposes deep political differences. Democrats tend to favor extending benefits, citing the unusually high unemployment rate (8.6 percent nationally and 6.4 percent in Minnesota). Conservatives say extending benefits is too costly and can provide a disincentive for diligent job searches.

"Certainly, the national debt is a concern to everyone," said HIRED Director Jane Samargia. "But, honestly, when this many people are unemployed, we have to turn this around. They have to become taxpayers again and have to able to support their family."

But job counselor Magy admits he has mixed feelings about the proposed unemployment extension. He said some of his clients are "diligent in their search and deserve the extension based on the job market for their profession."

But there are many people who are not aggressive at all, he said.

"[Some] have taken much of their transition time as a long and personal break and should not, in my opinion, be eligible for an extension."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725