Holes in the Unemployment Safety Net

Picking up where I left off on the instability that plagues so many low-wage workers and their families. The reasons I’ve cited are all rooted in those low wages — and at times, even lower pay because so few of these workers have any paid sick or family leave benefit.

Which brings us to another wage-related source of instability. Households in the bottom fifth of the income scale have, on average, only enough money in the bank to cover nine days’ worth of expenses, the Pew Charitable Trusts report. What then if the breadwinners lose their jobs?

Unemployment insurance is supposed to serve as a safety net for them, as well as other workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own — and would work at another, if they could find it.

But only about one in four of all jobless workers received any UI benefits last year — a record low, the National Employment Law Project reports. Various reasons for this, including the following.

Not Enough for Long Enough

All states have UI programs, as you probably know. All provide some workers some portion of their lost wages if, as I said, they lose their jobs through no fault of their own, according to how states choose to define that, and if they actively search for work, also a variable definition.

Most states provide eligible workers with 26 weeks of benefits. Nine, however, cut back the weeks they cover — a response to drains on their under-funded UI trust funds during the Great Recession.

So workers in Florida and North Carolina, for example, may receive benefits for as few as 12 weeks. Those in three other states will definitely receive them for no more than 20.

Most of the nine, as well as some other states replace, on average, very small portions of lost wages — only about a third in North Carolina and less in five of the other cutback states.

So we’ve got two sources of financial instability here — as we do for many workers and their families even in states that haven’t whittled down their UI programs. But at least these workers receive something for awhile.

Not Enough Earned

Virtually all states require that workers have earned a certain amount during a so-called base period — generally the last four three-month periods before the one when they lost their job.

Some set a flat minimum for the base period. Others set a minimum for the quarter the worker got paid the most and then apply a formula to come up with a minimum for all four. Some use other formulas, e.g., one based on the average wage in the state.

Even more complexity and variety than I’ve indicated here. The bottom line is that the bottom lines states draw will disqualify some variable number of workers because they didn’t earn enough — most likely those who worked only some of the time and for low wages when they did.

Involuntary “Voluntary” Job Losses

Workers generally can’t get UI benefits if they quit. A few iffy exceptions, plus some that aren’t. But the latter don’t apply to workers in all states, even though the Recovery Act offered all incentives to adopt as many as three for “compelling family reasons” — domestic violence, for example, or to follow a spouse who’s leaving the area.

Yet workers may feel they’ve no choice but to quit when constantly shifting schedules prove too difficult to manage — because of childcare needs, for example.

They may have no UI benefits to fall back on, however, especially if they knew they couldn’t count on regular hours when they took the job, as CLASP and NELP report.

They may also wind up with no benefits if they didn’t try to continue working after a job or scheduling change — or if they did for more than a very short time. A Catch 22 if ever there was one.

Workers who get their jobs through temporary agencies may face a different barrier — basically, the agency’s claim that they quit because they didn’t immediately call in when the assignment they had ended. This apparently even if they didn’t know they had to.

Other Workers on Their Own

All states generally limit UI benefits to jobless workers who are available for work. Twenty-one deny them to all workers who can’t immediately accept a full-time job, even if they’d worked only part-time.

People who work for themselves can’t get UI benefits. This may seem altogether reasonable. But those classified as self-employed include independent contractors.

Clearly more of them than there used to be, though we don’t have a good read on how many, as the latest contingent worker report from the Government Accountability Office shows.

What we do know is that some workers classified as independent contractors are independent only of employer-sponsored benefits and major legal protections. An old problem that’s gotten renewed attention with the rise of the so-called gig economy.

The Department of Labor, IRS and some state agencies have ramped up efforts to end misclassification. But truly independent contractors and other contingent workers, e.g., day laborers, will have no income to tide them over when they’re out of work.

The Center for American Progress and two other progressive research and advocacy organizations recommend a short-term jobseekers allowance for these and other workers who’d remain ineligible for UI benefits, despite other recommended reforms.

They’d get about $170 a week for up to 16 weeks. Hardly a safety net, though better than nothing.

The allowance is just one small (in both senses of the word) piece of the CAP et al. agenda, which takes on a variety of flaws in the system — some I’ve flagged and many that I haven’t. Most, if not all the proposed reforms would require federal legislation.

Don’t suppose I need to restate the obvious.

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