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More than 400 county residents lost federal jobless benefits last month

SEBRING - Jim Gross, 61, lost his job in the citrus industry in November.

Greening and cutbacks in the grove business have forced him to look for work six months before he becomes eligible to receive Social Security retirement benefits.

There are several openings in the medical field in the area, he said ruefully, but most of those in agriculture are picking jobs.

Gross thinks he has the experience and the certifications for the job he was doing but wonders if his age stacks up against him.

"My issue is I'm 61. People look at my age," he said, and then tried to choke back tears when he talked about the burden his wife is now facing, with him being unemployed.

"It's tough from a man's view point that she has to be the sole breadwinner," he continued, as a tear rolled down his face.

Charlie Samuels has been working since he graduated from high school.

More than 25 years later, the last thing he expected to do was look for a job, and find it hard to get one.

Samuels also belongs to the nation's long-term unemployed, either those still looking or those who have given up trying to find work.

On Dec. 28, Samuels lost a much-needed crutch when he received an automated phone call telling him his federal unemployment benefits were going to expire unless Congress renews them.

James Canals, a 46-year-old cabinet maker who wears a pacemaker after three heart surgeries and lost his job Dec. 19, has not reached that point yet. But he will get only 16 weeks of state benefits unless Congress extends federal benefits, which typically follow when state help is exhausted.

"People like us, we really want to work if we have the opportunity," he said. He is afraid that with less than four months left before monetary assistance runs out, he will be forced to get just any job, not the "right job."

When the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program, as it's officially called, ended last month, about 88,000 Floridians, among them 443 Highlands County residents, found themselves cut off from the federal aid .

As of Dec. 30, there were 719 Highlands County residents receiving state benefits, which is a maximum of 16 weeks in Florida, making it one of seven states that provides jobless benefits of less than 26 weeks, according to a Florida International University study.

Whether Congress extends the unemployment compensation program remains to be seen.

The White House-backed legislation unexpectedly cleared an initial Senate hurdle on Tuesday, raising the prospect of a mid-winter compromise to ease the impact of the recession on the long-term unemployed, according to an Associated Press report.

The vote was 60-37 to limit debate on the three-month legislation, with a half-dozen Republicans siding with the Democrats on the test vote.

At the same time, the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said he and his rank and file would seek changes so the bill's $6.4 billion cost would not add to deficits.

Senate Democrats have so far rejected that approach, although there were signs they would eventually yield.

Shortly after the Senate vote, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a statement expressing views similar to McConnell's. Almost simultaneously, a senior Senate Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, signaled a willingness to consider changes to offset the impact of the bill on the deficit, calling that "the second best option."

As drafted, the unemployment bill would restore between 14 weeks and 47 weeks of benefits averaging $256 weekly to an estimated 1.3 million long-term jobless who were affected when the program expired Dec. 28. Without action by Congress, thousands more each week would feel the impact as their state-funded benefits expire, generally after 26 weeks.

Congressman Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, is "willing to work with the Senate to reach an agreement on extending unemployment benefits that is paid for, since this extension was not part of the bipartisan budget agreed to just weeks ago," said his Congressional aide Michael Mahaffey in an email.

Mahaffey explained that Rooney favored extending unemployment benefits if Congress found a way to pay for the program, and that he would also "prefer" it include some of the House-passed jobs bills

"I specify House-passed because there are dozens of those waiting for the Senate to act on, and to my knowledge (there are) zero Senate-passed jobs bills waiting on the House," Mahaffey said. "Harry Reid has proved repeatedly that he cares more about scoring political points on this issue than actually helping the long-term unemployed."

Mahaffey added that he would like to see an extension packaged with proposals that will help get people off unemployment and into full-time jobs, like the Keystone Pipeline "or any of the dozens of bipartisan bills waiting on Reid's desk."

Meanwhile, Florida is disproportionally affected by Congress' failure to renew long-term unemployment benefits, the FIU report states.

"Florida has more at stake than anybody else when it comes to reinstating unemployment benefits," said Ali Bustamante, author of the report from FIU's Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy, the Fort-Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reports.

Canals said he needs the time to look for the right job and despairs whether he will find one.

There are few jobs in Highlands County, he said, and employers sometimes undercut their workers, laying them off and then re-hiring them at a lower wage.

"I could just move but how," he said. "I have a house." If he moved and couldn't sell his home, he'd end up losing his equity in it, he added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.