SEATTLE When it comes to going over the fiscal cliff, the stakes are high for everyone, especially the roughly two million people at risk of losing long-term unemployment benefits.

That has already happened to thousands of unemployed people in Washington. Long-term unemployment benefits those for people out of work more than six months disappeared on Saturday in Washington and will not return unless a deal is reached.

That scares Tahirih, a mother who was job hunting Monday at WorkSource in Renton.

[Benefits] are very important because it s how I m keeping my head above water, she said. If I didn t have those benefits, I would drown.

Even when the country goes over the fiscal cliff, Tahirih will be OK for now because she lost her job in September. The first 26 weeks of unemployment benefits will remain in place. But those getting extended help up to an additional 37 weeks in Washington lost their benefits on Saturday.

If you re the unemployed person, this isn t helping, said Marlena Sessions, CEO of King County s Workforce Development Council. This is a tough time to cut benefits.

She said the economy is getting better in King County, where unemployment is now at around 6.3 percent.

But I think the timing of this is going to make everyone uneasy, Sessions said. Employers in particular are going to be nervous about doing new hires and that is the last thing we need right now is to stop that momentum.

If Congress passes a deal this week that reinstates long-term unemployment benefits, odds are good those affected would not miss any payments, according to the state s Employment Security Department. But if congress makes changes to the program that force the state to update its computers, then payment delays are a possibility.

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