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by Judy Conti, National Employment Law Project

Today’s employment crisis is having a devastating impact on workers from all walks of life, but especially those mothers taking care of their families while also struggling to cope with the loss of their job.

These and other hard-working families are becoming increasingly reliant on unemployment benefits to help see themselves and their families through until that next job comes along. But, without the help of the new economic recovery legislation that is now actively being debated in the halls of Congress, these workers may well fall through the cracks of an outdated unemployment system set up in 1935 in response to the Great Depression.

Take the case of the growing number of women who now work part-time to help care for their families. In most states, they don’t qualify for unemployment insurance because they have to be looking for full-time work to collect benefits. This is no small problem. As the latest Census figures show, 6.6 million women with children under the age of 18 -- 26% of all employed mothers -- work part-time. Most states also exclude people who had to leave their jobs because of compelling family needs, such as a spouse’s mandatory job transfer, to escape from domestic violence, or to care for a sick family member. Not surprisingly, the vast number of people who leave their jobs for these reasons are women, yet they too do not qualify for unemployment benefits in most states.

These are but a few of the injustices that the Unemployment Insurance Modernization Act (UIMA) seeks to remedy. This legislation, if passed as part of the economic recovery bill when the new Congress convenes, will provide the states with generous incentive grants if they enact model reforms of their unemployment insurance programs designed to ensure that more low-wage workers and women can collect benefits when hard times hit. Those states that have already adopted these innovative reforms will receive their grants immediately to expand benefits further, and the other states will receive several years of incentive funds as soon as they enact the measures.

This week, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) released the results of a nationally representative survey of unemployed workers documenting the hardships of joblessness and the critical role that unemployment benefits play to help families pay their bills and find new work. (“Unemployed in America,” conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, is available on-line at Nearly 90% of the parents surveyed reported unemployment benefits as important in their ability to help meet the family’s basic needs such as food and housing. 68% have cut back on food and groceries, 34% have had to apply for free or reduced meals at school for their children, 26% have skipped meals because they can’t afford them, and 20% have received food from a charitable organization. Indeed, when surveyed about many basic issues facing unemployed workers such as cutting back on health care, falling behind on housing payments, and inability to pay other bills, families with children uniformly report more difficulty than families or individuals without children. Those who do not collect unemployment face even higher hardship levels, and are twice a likely to have to skip meals. Surely, we do not want parents to face the devastating reality of having to skip their own meals so as to feed their children, or even worse, have to cut back drastically on the quantity and quality of food they feed their families.

As Congress seeks to enact, and President-Elect Obama seeks to sign into law, legislation to lead the country through to economic recovery, it is crucial that the UIMA be part of that critical agenda. As we know from past recessions, employment does not usually fully rebound until at least a year after a recession ends, so the UIMA is of crucial importance to the millions of workers who will continue to lose their jobs in the next year or two, and will be faced with the reality of long-term unemployment as the economy recovers. It will ensure that at least 500,000 additional deserving workers will qualify for unemployment benefits, which is hard cash that stimulates the economy by $2.15 for every $1 received by communities hardest hit by the recession. Or as Professor Robert Reich recently stated, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, “It’s a matter of social equity, and it is also one of the best ways to stimulate the economy.” (

Now is the time for mothers everywhere to stand up and be heard on this important piece of legislation and insist that the UIMA be signed into law as a necessary and core component of the nation’s new economic recovery agenda.

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