For thousands of Tampa Bay area residents, today marks the beginning of the end of federal unemployment benefits.
Unless Congress acts to extend them further, the bulk of federal unemployment benefits will end on Jan. 1, blowing a hole in the lives of people who depend on the money to pay their bills and feed their families.
"After January, I don't know what I'm going to do," said Robert Brooks, who has been out of work since September 2010. "There's not a whole lot of preparation you can make. When you're out, you're out."
After a career with GTE and later Verizon, the Tampa resident is now going through retraining to upgrade his work skills. In the meantime, he uses his savings to make his house payment and relies on his dwindling unemployment, combined with a part-time job through AARP, to live.
He's unsure how he'll get along next year.
"Do I have a grand strategy?" Brooks said. "No."
So far this year, about 175,000 people in the Tampa Bay area signed up for emergency or extended unemployment benefits, down by about 25 percent compared to last year.
Altogether, federal and state unemployment insurance has put $2.3 billion into the state's economy this year. After federal benefits run out, a good portion of that money will disappear from stores, gas stations and bank accounts across Florida, according to economist Patrick Mason of Florida State University.
As Congress returns from its Thanksgiving break, Democrats and Republicans will take up the question of extending unemployment benefits – something Republicans have opposed. A Democrat-backed bill pending in the House of Representatives would extend benefits through next September, but so far has found little traction.
The looming deadline for unemployment will end federal officials' efforts, starting in 2008, to buttress state unemployment benefits, which in many states max out at 26 weeks. Recipients work through a series of benefit extensions, ultimately cobbling together 99 weeks of unemployment checks.
Come Jan. 1, though, people will no longer be able to apply for three of the four layers of federal unemployment benefits, which kick in once state unemployment is exhausted; and the fourth tier will run out in February. People already getting federal benefits will still receive them, but all federal unemployment checks will stop by June 9.
That will leave 2012's unemployed Floridians to fall back on 23 weeks of state benefits, after legislators reduced the timeframe from 26 weeks this year.
Safety-net agencies such as the state Department of Children & Families say it's not clear how much the demand for food stamps or cash assistance might increase as people lose their benefits.
"A large number of people on unemployment are already receiving benefits," said DCF spokesman Terry Field.
It's likely that many of those already getting help will need more, though, Field said.
"We'll be ready if that does happen," he said.