When Unemployment Insurance Fails, Our City Workers Fail

Guest Commentary

Volume CIV, No. 1January, 2004

Kate Rubin

New York City’s workers have been hard hit during the past three years. Unemployment has reached deep into every community, with more than 240,000 jobs lost since the start of the recession.

But the unemployment insurance (UI) system has failed to act as the first line of defense for our workers. Created to provide temporary support to workers when they lose their jobs, the UI system is supposed to tide them over as they search for work and prevent the downward spiral into poverty. Yet in New York, less than half of workers who lose their jobs actually get unemployment benefits – even though they pay into the UI fund through their payroll taxes.


To better understand why the safety net failed so badly, the Brennan Center for Justice conducted an innovative, community-based survey of 2,500 workers who became unemployed in 2001 and 2002.

The survey results demonstrate just how badly the safety net failed the unemployed. Most workers experienced serious economic hardship after losing their jobs; their weekly benefit checks were barely adequate; and many – especially low-wage, part-time, and immigrant workers – never received benefits at all.

Examples of economic hardship were widespread among the workers we surveyed. Many cut down on meal sizes, went to soup kitchens, had their utilities cut off, dropped health insurance, or got evicted as a result of unemployment. Fully 86 percent drew on savings, borrowed money, sold property, or charged necessities on their credit cards.

Inadequate benefits contributed to their hardship: the average unemployment check replaced less than half of what the typical worker had earned before. To make matters worse, thousands of workers ran out of benefits before finding new jobs, even though they were actively searching for jobs and, in many cases, enrolling in training and education programs.

In addition, workers who most needed benefits were the least likely to get them. Low-wage workers, part-time and temporary workers, and independent contractors were the least likely to receive benefits. White workers were much more likely to receive benefits than workers of color. And because the size of the benefit check depends on previous earnings, the typical low-wage worker who did get benefits received just $156 per week – while higher-wage workers received $405 per week.


But we also found clear evidence that the UI system can be fixed.

For example, in the months following September 2001, the percent of unemployed workers who received benefits jumped by 25 percent – clearly the result of extraordinary outreach efforts. Union members were much more likely to receive benefits than nonunion workers – because the city’s locals are committed to helping their members get access to public benefits.

The lesson is that outreach really works. Why? Because many workers assume they’re not eligible for benefits and therefore don’t apply. And even when they do try to access benefits, the application process is complicated. Many workers require assistance and, sometimes, further legal resources.


The bottom line is that New York needs to reform its unemployment insurance system on three fronts. First, outreach strategies should be widely adopted to help more people navigate the application process, especially when their first language isn’t English. Second, eligibility rules should be reformed so that workers who pay into the UI system can draw on it when they lose their jobs. And third, benefits should more adequately support workers: benefit checks should be larger and should last longer, especially during economic downturns when some workers simply cannot find jobs.

It’s a heavy lift, but if unions, community groups, and government officials work together, unemployment insurance can once again be the first line of defense it was meant to be. The workers who endured and prevailed through 9/11, and who continue to struggle with chronic unemployment, deserve nothing less.

Resources for workers are available at Unemployed workers who require legal assistance can call the Unemployment Action Center at (212) 998-6568. The Brennan Center’s report, “Recession and 9/11,” is available in PDF format at

Kate Rubin is Research Associate at the Economic Justice Project.