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The 80th anniversary of unemployment insurance (UI) passed with little notice in August. Passage of time alone does not explain UI’s sad, sorry state. Instead, deliberate limitations were built into the program’s beginnings while others have been adopted during its history. Studies show that women and part-time and low-wage workers do not draw UI benefits at rates consistent with their numbers within the ranks of jobless workers.

In the second quarter (April, May, June 2015), nationally only 26 of every 100 jobless workers got UI benefits. This ratio is called the recipiency rate. Many states are worse than the national average in terms of recipiency rates. Florida, in particular, is doing a terrible job and was featured in a September 2015 report, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” researched and written by NELP colleagues George Wentworth and Claire McKenna.

Hidden within these and other sad program statistics are a series of intentionally-designed policies that keep disproportionate numbers of working women and African-Americans outside the protections of UI programs. Other policies are less explicitly targeted, but still keep the UI program too restricted and ineffective to serve as a meaningful safety net for jobless citizens.

To begin, in the 1930s when UI was born, Democrats controlled the Congress, but many powerful committee chairs were from the South. Even then, the South had an economic development strategy of keeping wages low to attract jobs and employers. Specifically, many Southern members of Congress resisted higher wages for African-Americans, large numbers who still worked in agriculture as sharecroppers and in white households as domestic workers. These members recognized that paying UI to workers gives them some leverage to resist accepting jobs at poverty wages. In addition, the administrative difficulties of covering these workers raised concern. As a result, the UI program started out by specifically excluding nearly all agricultural workers and domestic workers, many of whom were African-Americans and/or women. These occupational exclusions were not addressed by Congress until the 1970s.

As women entered the labor market in greater numbers during and after World War II, they met social barriers in many forms. Whether from other family members, private employers, or governments, these barriers were based upon what feminist analysts have since dubbed the male breadwinner model. Under this viewpoint, which was shared by many members of both genders of that time, men were expected to financially support their families with work outside the home, while women were seen as bearing chief responsibility for rearing children, cooking, and keeping household affairs in order.

Those women who did work were largely viewed as secondary workers, meaning they did not need fringe benefits or wages equivalent to those provided to men because they were not supporting families. A nearly identical viewpoint emerged regarding part-time workers, many of whom were women. And, the negative viewpoints about female workers outside the home and part-time workers not supporting families reinforced each other and are still reflected in UI rules.

Many states adopted policies or legislation to limit the UI eligibility of part-time workers in the 1950s as part-time work became more common. Even today, 21 states require that UI claimants seek full-time work, even if workers have met UI eligibility requirements through part-time work or have a good reasons to work part-time (partial disability, family responsibilities, etc.). Another 20 states offer only limited assistance for part-time workers, while only 10 states do not discriminate against part-time workers in their eligibility rules.

Today’s UI rules preserve barriers to UI for many workers, especially women workers. The primary impact arises out of rules in most states that create a distinction between job-related reasons for leaving a job and personal reasons for quitting. Since women still bear primary responsibility for caregiving in most households, when they must quit jobs to assist an aging parent or care for young children, most states consider these reasons as personal and declare them insufficient justifications for quitting. (A summary of restrictive part-time and good cause rules is in the Appendix of a recent report here.)

A thorough revision of UI programs to eliminate unfair limitations is required to bring UI into the 21st Century. These restrictions remain in place because they are not widely recognized and the costs of their elimination would be borne by somewhat higher payroll taxes paid by employers. However, the best states have already eliminated them without observable harm to employers there. Under current practices, costs are needlessly shifted to families who can ill afford them with a resulting measurable loss of economic justice in our society.

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