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Overcoming Inequality in Unemployment Benefit Access and Utilization

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History may not repeat itself but it certainly rhymes. Today’s unemployed Black workers face a system of unequal state policies and practices that were created after the Civil War to maintain white supremacy and prevent Black Americans from obtaining wealth. These discriminatory policies drive enormous and persistent wage and wealth gaps, as well as the ongoing exclusion of Black workers from the benefits, rights, and protections we all deserve.

A reckoning is due.

Early in the pandemic, Working America — an organization that mobilizes working-class people to take action on pocketbook issues — partnered with policy experts at the National Employment Law Project, with the support of Open Society Foundations, to address a portion of this legacy: the unequal distribution of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. Black workers are not only more likely to be unemployed during the pandemic but much less likely to receive UI. Law, policy, and practice may be the problems, but the solution begins with mobilization. 

Money Changes Everything

It’s no secret that the United States has a history of exploiting Black workers. But the extent to which one can draw a direct line between the current unemployment crisis and the history of enslavement is staggering. Throughout America’s history, Black Americans, especially in rural communities, have been subjected to discriminatory laws and policies aimed at keeping them from achieving economic parity with white workers.

Unemployment insurance is a good example. The program was designed so that not all workers would be eligible for benefits — including lower-paid workers, workers with short periods of employment, seasonal workers, and workers in industries that tend to be more highly populated by people of color, such as domestic and agricultural work. As a result, many Black workers don’t expect to be eligible for benefits and, therefore, never apply. Why apply just to be denied? 

The lowest UI benefit levels are in southern states with large Black populations. In states such as North Carolina and Florida, for example, fewer than 12 percent of jobless individuals received unemployment benefits last year. When workers in many southern states do get UI, the benefits are so low that they would barely cover the essentials. The maximum weekly benefit in Florida and Tennessee is $275; in Alabama, it’s $265; in Arizona, it’s $240; and in Mississippi, it’s $235. 

Black workers are far less likely to receive UI even when they apply for benefits. In a survey our organizations conducted in July, a majority of Black workers responded that they had exhausted their savings; nearly two-thirds admitted that they were now going without necessities. In comparison, only one in four white workers said they had exhausted their savings and only one in five admitted to skipping necessities.

A major reason for this disparity was workers’ ability to access UI. An analysis by Nyanya Browne and William Spriggs of Howard University and the AFL-CIO found that, “Just 13 percent of Black people out of work from April to June received unemployment benefits, compared with 24 percent of white workers, 22 percent of Latinx workers and 18 percent of workers of other races.” What’s more, 30 percent of Black adults who filed for unemployment benefits did not receive their payments. 

The difficulties people of color — and Black people in particular — have in accessing UI are systemic and ongoing. It isn’t only that most UI systems create barriers to access, including insufficient staffing, outdated web systems, and lack of adequate explainers for claimants. Individuals with uncommon or ethnic names were more likely to be denied benefits they were entitled to. This is not a function of law or policy but of individual people practicing discriminatory conduct. This practice robs individuals and their families of the meager economic safety net our society provides, putting them at a disadvantage that is hard to recover from. That is a lot of historical rhyming.

Changing the UI Experience

Working America and NELP partnered on this project to understand the problems with UI access and utilization for Black workers, use our available toolset to mitigate harm, and assist eligible workers in enrolling in UI. For this project, Working America is leveraging its digital organizing capacity and clinical testing know-how to boost UI utilization rates among Black workers using targeted text messages, email, and phone calls that can reach three million people a week.

Listening is the key to all good organizing, so we began our project by reaching out to 14,531 workers. Our goal was to document their experiences with the unemployment system, their attitudes toward the system, and their knowledge of the application process.

A full 53 percent of people told us that they or someone in their households had lost a job as a result of the pandemic. That number rose to 68 percent when we asked them about their friends.

Ayana, a 46-year-old Westland, Michigan, resident working in health care, said, “My friends, neighbors, and family members all have had to apply to UI … They all had technical difficulties [when applying]. It seemed like no one could ever talk to a live person.”

Keshia, a 44-year-old Greensboro, North Carolina, resident who works in human resources, said, “My sister lost her job in the medical field. She had to wake up very, very early, like 3:00 a.m., in order to apply through the online portal. Otherwise, it would be so slow it wouldn’t work. She was denied because there was some discrepancy with her name and had to keep going back and forth, but she eventually got it.”

Through conversations like these, we diagnosed several problems.

First, there was a clear geographic disparity. In southern states, problems were borne of deliberate policy choices that continue the long legacy of structural racism, including restrictive eligibility and low benefit levels. In addition, those living in rural counties faced greater difficulty accessing benefits than those living in urban areas. Even with Working America’s help, unemployed Black Americans in rural communities waited seven-to-eight days longer than unemployed white and Latinx Americans to receive benefits. 

Second, most people we spoke to were not aware of program eligibility rules and benefits. This was one of the primary reasons that they did not apply for benefits. Further, many saw their hours reduced rather than being laid off; these workers were often unaware that they were eligible for unemployment benefits.

In addition to these informal conversations, our large-scale survey of 14,135 workers found alarming but unsurprising conditions. Black and brown workers were the least likely to have savings, the most likely to have lost wages during the pandemic, and the most likely to be unable to pay for essentials such as groceries, medications, and rent. Across the board, there was little knowledge about the unemployment program’s eligibility criteria or benefit amounts, confirming what we heard in our informal conversations. 

There is reason to hope, however. A majority of people we talked with were willing to take action to help their friends and family access benefits. 

Our organizers provided Ayana, Keshia, and other similarly situated “peer organizers” with information about unemployment eligibility and how to access benefits in their state. We also followed up to make sure members of their communities were accessing benefits. 

We’ve been in back-and-forth communication with almost 7,540 Black workers who are sharing information about UI in their networks. By constantly testing our outreach through randomized control trials and making adjustments based on the evidence of what works, we are finding agents of change in the community. 

One UI recipient in Pennsylvania told us, “We’re never going to get out of this mess here in Philadelphia unless we start treating Blacks like everyone else … I can tell you care, and it sounds like you’ve been helping people here, so I’m going to share your stuff because I know a lot of people that sure can use it, and you’re right, I already know a few that might get evicted.” 

Another Pennsylvania resident told us he works as a manager for a construction company that had to lay off a lot of workers. He wanted information so he could help his employees file for unemployment benefits. Yet another man told us he was a landlord, and while he didn’t need help applying for benefits, he was interested in helping his unemployed tenants get the benefits they needed to stay afloat. 

Turning Enthusiasm into Action

We know we need to scale up this program to reach more affected workers. Our goal is to build an organizing formula that measurably increases the application and filing rates — and ultimately the level of income — in these communities.

Working with the Labor Lab at Columbia University, we are implementing randomized control trials to assess the effectiveness of campaign strategies in increasing awareness of unemployment benefits and action on UI claims in Black communities. We are focusing our efforts on the 42 counties across the country with the highest concentration of Black workers. In half the counties, we’ll saturate residents with calls, digital contacts, and grasstops organizing techniques. We will then track the change in claims at the county level to get hard data on the impact of our work.

We found that there is a lot of misinformation about unemployment benefits, so we developed quiz-style engagement actions. For example: “True or false? If you were out of work but found a new job, you can still get unemployment benefits for the time you were out of work.” These types of actions tend to have greater engagement.

In phone conversations, we have found that people are much less likely to agree to help with unemployment outreach if they have not been personally impacted by the unemployment crisis. However, upon learning that only one in four eligible Black workers applies for benefits, many wonder if people they know might be missing out. Overall, 70 percent of these people agreed to help others apply for unemployment benefits.

Our next step is to follow up with these peer organizers who have been sharing UI information in their communities to connect them with fellow activists, skilled organizers, and resources to help them become more effective at reaching those who need it most. By talking directly to workers and members of the community, we are able to help them navigate the complexities of accessing regular and expanded unemployment insurance benefits. By recruiting them as community organizers, we’re creating a movement that will help many more families who have lost wages gain financial ground.

Fixing Broken Policies

At the grasstops level, Working America and NELP are collaborating with other organizations to advocate for short- and long-term policy solutions to the unemployment crisis.

In the short term, we must meet the immediate needs of unemployed and underemployed workers. Congress must not only reinstate the $600 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefit and other CARES Act provisions but also provide funding to state and local governments, ensure paid sick leave and child care for all working people, and deliver relief for workers ineligible for unemployment payments. USDOL’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA) must also make it clear that suitable work does not include unsafe work; if employers have not taken the minimum precautions set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 workplace guidelines, workers who quit their jobs should be eligible for unemployment benefits.

In the long term, Congress should consider federalizing UI — to operate similarly to Social Security — in order to address the wide disparity across states and populations. We should have permanent levers to automatically extend benefits during a recession, make worksharing available in every state, and provide dependent allowances for people who have children. Workers who are fleeing domestic violence, following a spouse whose job has moved, or leaving a job that jeopardizes their health and safety should be able to receive UI. And we should make sure that all workers, including those with erratic or part-time schedules and those whose job categories are currently excluded, are eligible to receive meaningful UI benefits. Finally, UI information technology (IT) systems must be easier for claimants to access. Individual states can take steps now to immediately address problems.

Ground-Up Systemic Change 

Many smart organizations and people have tried to increase UI access over the years, and a lot of work has gone into improving actualization of similar programs, such as Medicaid, EITC, and SNAP. What all these programs have in common is that they can change the dynamics of personal wealth and give working people what they need to gain some stability. We aren’t the first to tackle this issue, and we won’t be the last. 

The real power of this organizing project is the movement we’re creating to fix this rigged political economy and fight for the policy changes we desperately need. By arming people with the information they need to navigate the systems that have failed them for centuries, we can begin to break down some of the barriers that have kept wealth out of the hands of Black people. The key, we believe, is organizing communities not only to demand change of their elected officials but to make change themselves.

This blog originally appeared at The Forge on October 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Matt Morrison is the executive director of Working America, a three-million-member labor organization mobilizing working people who don’t have the benefit of a union at their jobs. He is a leading political practitioner with experience working in over 500 elections throughout his career.

Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). NELP is a respected leader in federal workers’ rights advocacy and the go-to resource for state and local worker movements, providing unmatched policy, legal, and technical assistance.


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