National Consumers League

Unemployed = Unemployment Benefits, Right?


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by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Not necessarily. I always assumed that when you worked, then lost your job, you’re automatically entitled to unemployment benefits—they are part of our American “safety net.” Turns out I was wrong: according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, July 29, only 37% of the country’s unemployed received benefits in 2007, down from 55% in 1958 and 44% in 2001. The Journal based its numbers on Labor Department statistics.

The workers who don’t qualify for unemployment include part timers, people who quit or were fired, and those who didn’t earn enough money in a one-year “base period” that often excludes the most recent 3-6 months. Most states’ base period includes the first four of the last five completed quarters. States often require an average weekly wage in calculating their base period.

Covering a mere 37% of the unemployed is unconscionable. Unemployment benefits are often the only life jacket that workers can grab onto to keep food on the table and the lights on. Low income workers bear the brunt of this policy, with fewer than 15% of low wage workers getting benefits, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The House of Representatives passed a bill last year to provide an additional $7 billion to allow part-time workers to receive benefits and count earnings more generously. The Senate is supposed to take up a similar bill this fall. Our friends at NELP (National Employment Law Project) are working to get the bill passed and they argue that 300,000 additional workers would qualify for benefits if states changed the way they determine the base earnings period. An employer-based group in Texas was quoted as saying the bill isn’t a “panacea for everyone who happens not to be working.” No, but laid off workers aren’t looking for a panacea. They’re looking for a little help to feed their families. At an annual cost of $550 million, we ought to be able to make that happen.