Rebecca Smith

(WOMENSENEWS)–At the Career Transition Center in Long Beach, Calif., a small group of men and women sit hunched in front computer monitors, searching a state database for jobs. One well-dressed woman in her 50s just collected her last $41 in unemployment benefits. She was laid off from her customer-service job at an airline last March. Since then, she has juggled utility bills, paying the phone one month and electricity the next, trying to keep them both from being shut off. She stopped driving, unable to afford her car registration and insurance. In January, she started collecting food stamps.

“It has just been a large, large challenge,” says the woman, who did not wish to be named. “You send out 100 resumes in a month and not hear from anybody.”

Women’s unemployment rose to 5 percent in February 2003–up from 4.3 percent in 2000. As of February, women comprised 44.6 percent of the unemployed. Historically, working women are able to weather recessions because the industries that typically react strongly to an economic downturn–such as manufacturing and construction–are still dominated by men. But the nation’s current economic woes defy that pattern. Recent figures show high unemployment rates in the service and retail sectors, where the majority of workers are women. As women’s joblessness rises to meet men’s, however, the likelihood that they will receive unemployment benefits does not.

Report Indicates Gender Gap in Unemployment Benefits

In 41 states, unemployed men are more likely than unemployed women to receive jobless benefits, according to a report released in March by the National Employment Law Project in New York. The report, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Confronting the Failure of State Unemployment Insurance Systems to Serve Women and Working Families,” reveals that a majority of state employment insurance programs have qualification standards that limit women’s access to benefits. “There’s an inherent bias built into the system,” says report co-author Rebecca Smith.

Almost all states require workers to meet a minimum income eligibility standard in order to receive unemployment benefits. Since women make up 60 percent of low-wage workers, they are less likely than men to meet the income requirements. When women do qualify for unemployment benefits, their checks are usually lower than men’s because their wages are lower. On average, women earn 76 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Beyond the wage disparity, family duties also contribute to the unemployment-insurance gender gap. Women make up 73 percent of all family primary caregivers, according to research by the National Council of Women’s Organizations in Washington, D.C. Women also comprise 70 percent of part-time workers. Many are unable to look for full-time work because they are caring for their children or elderly parents and can’t find, or can’t afford, child or elderly care. The National Employment Law Project report found that in 33 states, workers are not eligible for unemployment insurance unless they are able to look for full-time jobs. Women who quit their jobs due to family responsibilities are also unlikely to collect an unemployment check. Thirty states lack adequate provisions for workers to collect unemployment when they quit their jobs for family reasons, according to the report.

Women are also more likely than men to leave their jobs due to sexual harassment or domestic violence. Though state unemployment programs are designed to pay benefits to people who lose jobs through no fault of their own, women who suffer from violence or harassment do not fit that definition in a vast majority of states. The National Employment Law Project found that only 13 states allow workers who quit their jobs due to sexual or other harassment to collect unemployment benefits. Only 18 states have unemployment insurance that covers women who leave their jobs due to domestic violence.

Female Heads of Household Hit Hard

Single mothers are especially vulnerable to loss of employment–and their number among the ranks of the unemployed is growing. Unemployment among female heads of household was 8.4 percent in March 2003 and 9 percent in February, according to two “Unemployment Watch” reports released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. Over 30 percent of families headed by single moms live below the federal poverty level. Women who left welfare for work are likely to be counted among them. The wage and working hour requirements that are part of most states’ unemployment insurance programs are likely to hit these women the hardest.

“It’s not fair or realistic to expect workers to be able to support their families at all times when there’s not better social-support systems,” says Vicky Lovell, a co-author of the “Unemployment Watch” reports that the Institute for Women’s Policy Research publishes on an occasional basis.

Part of the reason unemployment insurance programs have failed to account for the realities of working women, says Lovell, is that lawmakers believe unemployment benefits are for people who work full-time for years and are laid off due to employer work-force reduction. Lovell believes the rules for receiving unemployment should change to reflect today’s workforce. “Public policy is supposed to be malleable to changes in demographics and economic circumstances,” says Lovell.

Former welfare recipients can be expected to have jobless rates that are twice the national average, according to research by The Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. The same research found that, due to the inability to meet income or other criteria, no more than 20 percent of former welfare recipients are expected to be eligible for unemployment benefits. With a five-year lifetime limit on welfare, these women may face an income drop without a safety net.

For Ebony Jones, that safety net is her mother. In January, the single mother of two children lost her job as an admissions coordinator at a nursing home. In most states, unemployment benefits are based on a percentage of the worker’s prior earnings, without considering the number of dependents a worker has to support. Because of this, low-income single moms are likely to receive benefits that are too low to meet their families’ basic needs. Jones earned $1,400 a month before she was laid off. Her unemployment checks total $936 a month, which is not enough to make ends meet, says Jones. Her mother is paying her rent while she searches for another job.

Efforts Underway to Improve Access for Women

As of 2001, women made up 46.6 percent of the U.S. work force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some states have taken measured steps to reform their unemployment benefits system to meet the needs of working women. Maine, New Hampshire, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey and Massachusetts have pending legislation to extend unemployment insurance to part-time workers. Legislation that explicitly allows survivors of domestic violence who leave work due to violence to collect unemployment benefits has been introduced in Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia. The business community forms the main opposition to unemployment insurance reforms.

“Employers generally oppose expansion of the unemployment insurance system in many states . . . because they view it as a business expense,” says Smith, of the National Employment Law Project.

Any changes that do come about won’t help the women currently out of work.

“It’s hard to believe that you’re 50-something and you’re back at the beginning,” says the Long Beach woman who just collected her last unemployment check. She continues to fax out five resumes a day, waiting for a break.

Shauna Curphey is a freelance writer living in Long Beach, Calif.

For more information:

Institute for Women’s Policy Research:

The Urban Institute–
“Effects of Welfare Reform on Unemployment Insurance”
(Adobe Acrobat Format):