Simple changes in state legislation can bring billions in federal funds to bolster unemployment benefits, the California Labor Federation says. But speedy action is vital, with unemployment at 10.1 percent in California, and benefits for tens of thousands slated to run out in mid-April.

Federation head Art Pulaski told a March 12 telephone press conference that the state’s ability to receive some $5.4 billion in federal unemployment funds under the stimulus bill depends on updating current unemployment legislation to take most recent earnings into account in calculating unemployment benefits, and altering a state trigger to extend federally funded benefits for an additional 20 weeks.

Legislation now before the Assembly, AB 23 x3, is needed so state law will meet the federal requirements, he said. Under the measure’s “urgency clause,” a two-thirds majority is needed for passage.

This is an occasion “when every legislator in Sacramento, Democrat and Republican, should come together to support those in need,” Pulaski said.

“And there’s no reason not to, because none of it is state money, it’s all federal dollars that President Obama is saying he wants to use to help this state get out of the hole … We need to move right away to make this happen.”

The labor movement is urging Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who earlier said he supports the changes, to help move the bill forward and build Republican support needed to reach the supermajority.

A vote in the Assembly is expected on March 16.

Pulaski told journalists that with 1.8 million Californians currently unemployed, 1 million of whom are receiving unemployment benefits, California’s economic crisis is of “epic proportions.” Benefits will run out in mid-April for about 70,000 recipients, he said.

“We have a chance to help keep those families going, and to continue to help the economy, if the state acts urgently to make the changes needed in order to receive a massive amount of federal aid to beef up and extend benefits to those currently unemployed.”

Under current California law unemployment benefits are calculated based on the first four of the five most recent quarters, a provision that fails to reflect current electronic filing practices. Updating this provision would bring some $839 million in federal funds into the state, and the 20-week extension of unemployment benefits would be entirely federally funded, Pulaski said.

Both Pulaski and Maurice Emsellem, policy director at the National Employment Law Project, emphasized the role unemployment benefits play in bolstering the economy.

“When the Unemployment Insurance program was founded during the Great Depression,” Emsellem said, “boosting the economy was a main aim of the program along with helping unemployed workers. The more benefits are circulating in the economy, the bigger the boost to the economy.”

Reinforcing Emsellem’s observation that in recent crises, workers are unemployed longer, was South San Francisco machinist James Dimassimo, out of work for a year. Dimassimo told how he had spent his life savings, including college tuition funds for his teenage daughters, to pay off debts and is now “just a couple of months away from losing my house.”

Ella Marcus, a craft services worker in southern California’s entertainment industry, told how her livelihood and that of fellow workers has been devastated by “runaway productions” and television’s shift to reality shows. “I’d much rather work than collect unemployment,” she said. “But without my unemployment benefits it would be devastating to me and my family.”

Gov. Schwarzenegger can be reached at (916) 445-2841.