Federal Standards Needed to Provide Equitable Access to Unemployment Insurance


In the first three quarters of 2022, 6.2 million U.S. workers were counted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as unemployed, yet fewer than 1.6 million workers claimed UI benefits.[1] In other words, only a quarter of unemployed workers successfully claimed the primary public benefit established to support unemployed workers. Low rates of UI receipt by unemployed workers are typical: over the last 15 years, it has been rare for more than 30 percent of unemployed workers to receive unemployment benefits, except during the pandemic peak in benefits. [2]

Prior NELP research has documented how state UI laws, including restrictions on eligibility, [3] cuts to available weeks of UI benefits, [4] and procedural hurdles around documenting work search activities, [5] prevent many unemployed workers from becoming—or remaining— eligible for unemployment benefits. Yet researchers estimate that despite the wide array of state restrictions, approximately 55 percent of unemployed workers are eligible for unemployment benefits. [6] This means that millions of unemployed workers who are eligible for UI nevertheless do not receive benefits. Workers face multiple barriers to access that further exclude Black and Latinx workers, immigrant workers, low-paid workers, and workers with disabilities. [7]

Current federal UI performance standards encourage states to focus on detecting and fighting potential eligibility fraud, contributing to a punitive orientation that treats unemployed workers with suspicion that they are cheating the system. Strong standards that hold states accountable for improving UI access are needed to ensure that paying benefits to eligible workers is also a priority. Coupled with sufficient resources and effective enforcement mechanisms, performance standards will improve access and equity for Black and immigrant workers and other similarly marginalized groups who have faced the greatest barriers to accessing benefits.

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[1] NELP calculations based on data from the Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor.

[2] Wayne Vroman, Unemployment Insurance Benefits Performance since the Great Recession (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2018), https://www.urban.org/research/publication/unemployment-insurance-benefits

[3] Amy Traub, Why Is Expanding Unemployment Insurance Eligibility a Racial, Gender, and Disability Justice Imperative? (New York, NY: National Employment Law Project, 2022), https://www.nelp.org/publication/why-is-expanding-unemployment-insuranceeligibility-a-racial-gender-and-disability-justice-imperative/.

[4] Alexa Tapia and Nzingha Hooker, Slashing Unemployment Benefit Weeks on Jobless Rates Hurts Workers of Color (New York, NY: National Employment Law Project, 2021), https://www.nelp.org/publication/slashing-unemployment-benefit-weeks-on-joblessrates-hurts-workers-of-color/.

[5] Work Search Requirements (New York, NY: National Employment Law Project, 2022), (https://www.nelp.org/publication/worksearch-requirements/.

[6] Elira Kuka and Bryan A. Stuart, Racial Inequality in Unemployment Insurance Receipt and Take-Up, fact sheet (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2021), https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w29595/w29595.pdf; Thomas Callan et. al., Unemployment Insurance Modernization and Eligibility (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2015), https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/81541/2000815-Unemployment-Insurance-Modernization-andEligibility.pdf; Christopher J. O’Leary, et. al., “Equity in Unemployment Insurance Benefit Access,” (Kalamazoo, MI: Upjohn Institute for Employment Research), December 2, 2021, https://research.upjohn.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1025&context=up_policypapers.

[7] https://www.nelp.org/publication/reforming-unemployment-insurance-is-a-racial-justice-imperative

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About the Author

Amy Traub

Areas of expertise:
  • Unemployment Insurance,
  • Workplace Equity

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