The unemployment insurance (UI) system is a cornerstone of our economic infrastructure. It supports working people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own with cash benefits while steadying the economy during crises. Unfortunately, the current federal–state UI system, financed by state and federal taxes, is crumbling. In this report, we outline what the problem is—and how to fix it.
A joint project of Center for American Progress, Center for Popular Democracy, Economic Policy Institute, Groundwork Collaborative, National Employment Law Project, National Women’s Law Center, and Washington Center for Equitable Growth.
Table of Contents
Reforming Unemployment Insurance Stabilizing a System in Crisis and Laying the Foundation for Equity
Heeding the voices of workers rising up to fix a system that failed us
If nothing else, COVID-19 has taught us that if we don’t make bold changes to our nation’s economic and social foundation now, we could squander our best chance to save our economy from tanking in the next decade. We workers are that foundation, and this crisis has revealed fissures in that foundation that have been expanding for the past half-century.
I’m a Black Native American woman who just turned 60. I’m also an award-winning former broadcast and print journalist. My 40-year-plus career path has been obstructed by workplace abuse, systemic discrimination, racial and gender bias, wage suppression, and now ageism. I was already way behind the eight ball when the pandemic struck. And now I am unemployed.
Latrish Oseko and Dora Whitfield have faced similar obstacles. I learned Latrish’s and Dora’s stories through our leadership in a movement of unemployed workers. While Dora, Latrish and I established our careers in different industries and live in different states, we have faced the same insidious race and gender biases in our workplaces—and the same challenges in rejoining the ranks of the employed. Our unemployment experiences support the problems flagged in this report: that people of color, especially African Americans, represent a historically disproportionately large percentage of COVID-unemployed workers, and are least likely to get the benefits we need to get back on our feet. We’re the last hired, first fired, and the last rehired.
At the end of 2019, I was freelancing and about to start training for my second year with the U.S. Census Bureau when I clinched a remote long-term freelance opportunity providing content strategy to the University of Maryland. It was the next break I needed.
Then COVID-19 hit. I knew the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act provided Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), the federal program bringing jobless aid to workers ineligible for traditional UI. For the first time, the UI system offered benefits for nontraditional “1099 workers” like me. Without this temporary assistance, I, and millions of other workers, would have been without any financial support this past year. That’s why this report recommends that all workers, including contract, gig, and self-employed workers, be permanently eligible for some form of UI benefits.
Having been on Medicaid and food stamps in the past, I know how easy it is to answer an application question wrongly and be disqualified. My PUA application was approved and processed by early May. But without warning, the benefits stopped. I searched Facebook for groups that were sharing UI application information. I found one: “Georgia Unemployment Issues—COVID-19.” Our members included newly jobless people from all sectors. We had unintentionally joined a burgeoning national movement of people engaged in mutual aid and activism to improve a dysfunctional UI system.
Things got much, much worse after the additional $600 weekly benefits provided by the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) program ended July 31. More and more of our Facebook group members shared their heartbreaking stories of pending evictions, food insecurity, lost medical insurance, repossessed cars, and declining mental health. While the PUC program was extended at a lower weekly benefit level of $300 after a lapse of several months, it didn’t provide enough help for people falling further and further behind.
Coping with inadequate and unreliable benefits even in normal times is a familiar story for many workers. Louisiana, for example, provides notoriously stingy benefits. States with higher Black populations tend to have shorter benefit durations and less generous benefits. In these states, which tend to be in the South, many jobs are low-wage jobs and low benefits serve to force Black workers into those low-paying jobs. It’s one reason why they pay benefits that are way below the cost of living. It’s a big reason why we need federal standards.
Dora Whitfield had worked for 30 years in the New Orleans hospitality industry. She’s not well-to-do, but as a union member she enjoyed a stable income—enough to purchase her first home in 2014. Then the pandemic pulled the rug from under her. Her employer reduced her hours to part time until she was furloughed this past September.
Dora, a member of Step Up Louisiana, a community organization that organizes for economic and education justice, had never been on unemployment. She received the state’s maximum UI benefit of $247 a week, $221 after taxes.
“$247 a week?! Do you know I make that much money in tips when I work on a weekend? That’s on top of my regular paycheck,” she says. “When you have $221, it’s like you’re playing Russian Roulette. You have one bullet in your gun. And you have your light bill here, your water bill here, your car insurance, and then you might have your house note. So, wherever you shoot that bullet, that’s when you have to decide what bill you’re gonna pay.”
In Delaware, Latrish Oseko’s company began reducing its contract workers’ hours to part time in March. By May, all contractors were laid off, leaving Latrish, her live-in boyfriend, and their 4-year-old daughter solely dependent on his income. She lost her job the same month her landlord decided to evict her family. Despite their search for new housing, they hit the same wall millions of jobless Americans have encountered.
“We applied everywhere but we couldn’t get an apartment to save our lives because no one would accept us on my boyfriend’s measly income at the college and they would not accept my unemployment as income,” she explains.
They landed in Motel 6, spending more than $2,500 a month. The weekly PUC benefits she had saved kept a roof over their heads, but her savings dwindled quickly. Latrish’s boyfriend worked a job that put him at high risk for infection. His exposure forced the family to quarantine six times. Eventually, he contracted the virus. Latrish withdrew her daughter from day care, further frustrating her job search and causing another hit to the family’s income.
“We’re in a no-win situation,” she adds, noting that her current benefit amounts don’t cover her cost of living.
Dora and Latrish’s stories show that the unemployment system can be a literal lifeline, as when it kept Latrish’s family from living on the street. But far more often, UI fails working people—especially Black women like us. When UI is too stingy or unavailable due to narrow eligibility, millions of working people are either struggling to just survive, or forced to take work that is underpaid, unsafe, and offers no stability.
Employer lobby groups have persuaded governors around the country to withhold federal UI benefits because they refuse to raise wages or job quality to attract job seekers. Instead, they prop up a system that coerces us into jobs that pay below the cost of living and require working multiple jobs, consuming all our waking hours with no guarantee of steady hours or income. Without a federal right to unemployment benefits and the other recommendations in this report, many workers in this country will be trapped in a cycle of poverty and economic stress that, quite literally, is killing them.
In short, good jobs—jobs that allow us to live in dignity and security—aren’t available to a large swath of the American workforce. Before the pandemic, good paying jobs were hard to find after the Great Recession. Now, as post-pandemic recovery looms on the horizon, a weary workforce can’t afford more cuts in wages and stability.
Yet, we, the COVID-unemployed, have been accused of choosing a UI-benefits-based lifestyle instead of rejoining the workforce. Our answer to that narrative is a resounding “no!” We simply want work that pays wages and salaries that cover the rising cost of living. We want to grow in our aptitude, talents, and skills, and use them as they should be used—to make a reasonable living. Instead, we are being asked to accept a form of financial abuse by accepting work that traps us in a cycle of poverty and stagnation. So, we are pushing back. It’s that simple.
Our firsthand experiences underscore why this report proposes federal benefits standards to make sure benefits are enough to survive on. Our experiences show why we need a dependent allowance of $35 per week. They demonstrate why we need automatic triggers to extend benefits up to 99 weeks when the true unemployment rate increases.
These critical reforms would not only save vulnerable households but also protect the economy. Finally, the universality of our experiences underscores the need to finance unemployment benefits with federal taxes, not state ones, and ensure our access to benefits is not subject to the whim of state officials.
The obstacles we’ve faced are why we got involved in organizing for economic and racial justice. The proposals here were developed in collaboration and consultation with Latrish, Dora, me, and other workers like us. We need a better foundation for our economy. A reformed unemployment system with federal standards that ensure equity, efficiency, and stability can reinforce our weakened foundation. A well-crafted policy structure of fairness that is baked into the framework will provide a sturdy rebar system that benefits and empowers all workers.
—Sharon Shelton Corpening, Roswell, Georgia
Organizations noted for identification purposes only
Josh Bivens (Economic Policy Institute), Melissa Boteach (National Women’s Law Center), Rachel Deutsch (Center for Popular Democracy), Francisco Díez (Center for Popular Democracy), Rebecca Dixon (National Employment Law Project), Brian Galle (Georgetown University Law Center), Alix Gould-Werth (Washington Center for Equitable Growth), Nicole Marquez (National Employment Law Project), Lily Roberts (Center for American Progress), Heidi Shierholz (Economic Policy Institute), William Spriggs (AFL-CIO and Howard University), and Andrew Stettner (The Century Foundation)
The contributors and sponsoring organizations also appreciate the engagement and constructive feedback from key stakeholder organizations, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), and UNITE HERE.
Lora Engdahl’s tireless and insightful editing made this report possible. We are grateful for all of the work Amee Chew provided throughout the drafting of this report. Doug Steiger provided outstanding support in drafting and editing. Elizabeth Pancotti and Kitty Richards were invaluable before departing for government service. Key legal analysis and feedback on the challenges facing workers came from Julia Simon-Mishel. Don Rhodes and Cornelius Cornish Jr. provided critical fact-checking assistance; Barbara Karni and Teresa Kroeger provided editing assistance; John Carlo Mandapat, Daniel Perez, and Eric Shansby assisted with layout and design; and Colleen O’Neill provided a final proofread.
The members and leaders of Unemployed Action, a project of the Center for Popular Democracy, provided invaluable influence, input, and insights on their experience of the UI system. This report would not have been possible without them, and many of the recommendations wouldn’t have been possible without their perspectives and organizing. We’re grateful for the aid provided by Gus Leinbach and Arpan Patel in helping facilitate this process. This would not have been possible without the workers and worker-leaders who took part in the series of workshops that took place over two months and provided critical influence, feedback, and input on the policy to the authors. Similarly, staff and members of the following organizations were heavily involved in that process, including Benjamin Zucker, Gabrielle Bolden-Shaw, and Caleb Holmes of Step Up Louisiana; Lalo Montoya of Make the Road Nevada; Emily Dhatt and Sage Wilson of Working Washington; Claire Galpern of One PA; Nicole Fears-Washington, Klaire Gumbs, and Eric Robertson of the New Georgia Project; and Kalia Johnson and Molly Shack of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.
We also thank the many individuals who took time to provide us with feedback on the full report or on individual chapters (organizations noted for identification purposes only):
David E. Balducchi (U.S. Department of Labor, retired), Lauren Bauer (Brookings Institution), Alex Camardelle (Georgia Budget and Policy Institute), Jaya Chatterjee (SEIU), Cecelie Counts (AFL-CIO), Martha Coven (Princeton School of Public and International Affairs), Mia Dell (SEIU), Indivar Dutta-Gupta (Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality), Wendy Edelberg (Brookings Institution), Kathryn Anne Edwards (Rand Corp.), Michael Graetz (Columbia Law School), Kali Grant (Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality), Steve Gray (National Employment Law Project), Monica Halas (Greater Boston Legal Services), Sarah David Heydemann (National Women’s Law Center), Hilary Hoynes (University of California, Berkeley), Alex Jacquez, Andrew Johnston (University of California, Merced), Sowmya Kypa (SEIU), Marty Leary (UNITE HERE), Sharit Cardenas Lopez (SEIU), Rachel Lyons (UFCW), Elaine Maag (Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center), David Madland (Center for American Progress), Rachel Melendes (UNITE HERE), Michael Miller (U.S. Department of Labor, retired), Gwen Mills (UNITE HERE), Shaun O’Brien (AFSCME), Robert Pavosevich (U.S. Department of Labor, retired), Matt Pearce (Media Guild of the West), David Ratner (Federal Reserve), Kelly Ross (AFL-CIO), Jesse Rothstein (University of California, Berkeley), Carrie Sallgren (UNITE HERE), Zach Schiller (Policy Matters Ohio), Garrett Andrew Schneider (SEIU), Paul Schwalb (UNITE HERE), Alexa Tapia (National Employment Law Project), Wayne Vroman (Urban Institute), and George Wentworth (National Employment Law Project).
Bivens, Josh, Melissa Boteach, Rachel Deutsch, Francisco Diez, Rebecca Dixon, Brian Galle, Alix Gould-Werth, Nicole Marquez, Lily Roberts, Heidi Shierholz, William Spriggs, and Andrew Stettner. 2021. Reforming Unemployment Insurance: Stabilizing a System in Crisis and Laying the Foundation for Equity. A joint report of the Center for American Progress, Center for Popular Democracy, Economic Policy Institute, Groundwork Collaborative, National Employment Law Project, National Women’s Law Center, and Washington Center for Equitable Growth. June 2021.