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Carrot or Stick?

Below the Belt: A Column by NOW President Kim Gandy

April 22, 2009

This recession has been coined as the "he-cession" by some media pundits due to the rise of unemployment among men. Oh, so if this recession is affecting men more than usual, this means we can ignore the unemployed women, right?

Um, no. After all, it's not rocket science -- in a recession, people of both sexes are going to lose jobs. In some months, like January to February of 2009, unemployment has increased more for women (8.1 percent) than men (6.6 percent). In fact, February's 6.7 percent unemployment rate for women was the highest in 23 years.

The point is that neither gender is in great shape right now when it comes to finding and retaining work. With rising unemployment across the board, more people are applying for unemployment insurance (UI). And I can tell you, when it comes to UI programs, the system leaves a lot to be desired. According to a Center for American Progress report, under current law only about 37 percent of unemployed workers actually collect benefits at all, with low-wage, part-time, and female workers particularly harmed by outdated state eligibility rules.

The problem with UI isn't a new development, unless you consider 70 years new. Pretty much since the Great Depression, when unemployment insurance was first introduced on a national level, the rules governing UI eligibility have disadvantaged women -- largely because the system was set up at a time when relatively few women were in the workforce.

For example, women make up about two-thirds of the part-time workforce, and they pay into the unemployment system like everyone else. You would think that a half-time employee who is laid off would be able to collect benefits based on hours worked and payments into the system, but noooo. In many states you must be seeking full time employment to be eligible for ANY benefits, even if you are only able to work part-time.

This isn't a new problem either -- what is new is that we have an opportunity, thanks to the economic recovery package, to fix it. But only if we hold some feet to the fire in state legislatures, and that's where you come in. I'll get to that in a minute.

First thing you need to understand is that unemployment insurance is mostly up to the individual states. A few exceptions, like long-term unemployment, get attention from the feds. But in general, it's the luck of the draw whether or not you will get UI coverage (and how much) if you're unemployed, because it depends on where you live. And especially if you're a part-time or seasonal worker, or work lots of temporary jobs -- even though UI contributions are made based on your work -- you're in for a rude awakening if and when you try to apply for benefits. In many states, even full-time workers are excluded from UI programs if they were forced to leave their jobs because of domestic violence, a family illness, or a spouse relocation.

Take these examples: A woman from Iowa has been employed full-time for years, but suddenly she is forced to quit due to her husband's mandatory job transfer. A woman in Florida has to leave her job to care for a desperately ill child. We all know it's not uncommon for women to find themselves in these situations. But in Iowa, workers who leave their jobs because of spouse relocations don't qualify for unemployment benefits. And in Florida, a worker who leaves to care for a sick dependent is ineligible, even if she has paid into the system for decades.

Iowa and Florida aren't alone. See how a system set up in the Great Depression works so well today?

A few members of Congress have been trying for years to get legislation passed that would help modernize the UI system. They finally seized an opportunity in the economic recovery package, by including $7 billion in funding to help states modernize their UI programs. In order to receive all of their allotted budget, a state starts allowing workers to count their most recent wages toward qualification for benefits, instead of having the last three or six months excluded from the computation period.

After completing that step, a state gets one third of their piece of the $7 billion pie. To get the remainder, they have to implement two of four reforms -- two of which are incredibly important to unemployed women. Here's the scoop from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) on the four options for states:

"States must have two of the four following reforms in their state UI laws: (1) eligibility for part time workers; (2) eligibility for workers who must leave a job because of family circumstances, such as caring for a sick family member, relocating with a spouse who has to move for a job, and domestic violence; (3) providing at least 26 weeks of additional benefits for individuals who are participating in retraining; and (4) paying dependents' allowances of at least $15 per week per dependent, for up to three dependents."

I said I'd get back to where you come in, and here it is: As an advocate for women, you can let your state senators and representatives know that as they consider UI reforms, you want them to choose the first two options above, because they will have the greatest impact on women. While the additional dependents' allowance would make a difference as well, its cost may make the likelihood of passage slim.

Fixing the unemployment insurance system would make an enormous difference to all workers, especially women, and there's a big financial incentive for states as well. States are being offered a carrot so workers don't get the stick. Yet some states are rejecting this opportunity. Is yours? And while varying levels of activity are underway in many states, a lot more needs to be done to get as many states as possible to act now -- before legislatures adjourn -- to take full advantage of this important opportunity.

How can we make it any clearer that these measures are vital for the well-being of women everywhere?

How much worse do things need to get before we do something to change this antiquated the system?

We owe it to the generations who come after us to stand up now and demand that our state representatives seize this chance to make real changes that will impact the lives of the very real people who are losing their jobs as I write this.

Find out what's happening in your state by checking out this fact sheet from NELP. Then seek out your local NOW chapter and work together with local feminists to hold your state legislators' feet to the fire!

Working at the grassroots level, we can mobilize and demand that states bring their UI programs into this century. Not only that, but we can ensure that the states focus on the reform we need -- by making eligibility for part-time workers mandatory and ensuring that working women (and men) who have to leave the workforce for compelling family reasons will be able to collect on the insurance policy they have purchased through their own and their employers' contributions.

It's only fair.

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