(WOMENSENEWS)–In 41 states, unemployed men are more likely than women to collect unemployment insurance benefits, according to a May 2009 study by the New-York based National Employment Law Project.

But a federal recovery program may be quickly changing those numbers and extending this vital safety net to more women.

"Reforms are long overdue," said Linda Meric, executive director of 9to5 National Association of Working Women, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization that champions economic justice for low-wage women. "Currently, only 37 percent of unemployed workers collect benefits, which average $350 a week, because the unemployment insurance system was designed in 1935 and doesn’t reflect the 21st century work force."

Designed at a time when the paid work force was dominated by full-time, male breadwinners, the current system typically requires proof of earnings in four of the five base quarters and a threshold of earnings.

Currently, 85 percent of low-wage workers–most of them women–don’t collect benefits because they don’t meet those criteria.

To rectify that, and to qualify for President Obama’s federal recovery funds, states can use an "alternative base period" for prior earnings that include a worker’s most recent earnings in the calculations. The majority of states do not count a worker’s earnings in the latest quarter towards unemployment insurance eligibility. But this has resulted in the denial of benefits to many low-wage and part-time workers because even though they have earned enough to qualify, they don’t have earnings in each of the quarters.

Measuring earnings using an alternative base period expands unemployment insurance coverage to more low-wage and part-time workers. Over 40 percent of workers who fail to qualify for benefits because of insufficient earnings end up collecting benefits with the help of the alternative base period, according to the National Employment Law Project.

Lifeline for Low-Wage Women

"The alternative base period is a lifeline for low-wage women, especially single mothers who have few financial resources to survive a job loss," said Kathy White, project director at the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, a Denver-based nonprofit that promotes economic security for Coloradoans. "It also helps women who work in seasonal industries like tourism and women who hold a series of short-term jobs while they are transitioning from welfare to paid employment."

On Feb. 17, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provides $7 billion to states that make it easier for low-wage workers, part-time employees, workers who leave the labor force for compelling family reasons and workers who have lost jobs in declining industries and are completing extensive retraining to collect benefits.

Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., chair of the Income Security and Family Support Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee wrote the modernization provisions. He said the act recognizes the important role women play in the economy.

"For the first time, women account for half of U.S. workers, and mothers are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American families," McDermott told Women’s eNews. "However, women are much less likely to receive unemployment benefits if they lose their jobs. More and more middle class families are only able to stay part of the middle class because women have joined the work force. Salaries for middle and lower class Americans are not rising; rather families now have another breadwinner."

About half the states have taken advantage of incentives in the recovery act to modernize their eligibility criteria.

"Although some states changed their unemployment insurance systems during the last decade, others hesitated to do so because times were good," said Christine Riordian, a policy analyst at the National Law Employment Project. "The growth in long-term employment during the recession–one out of three unemployed workers has been jobless for six months–and the increased strain on states’ unemployment insurance funds has been a powerful incentive to improve antiquated systems. Reforms have taken place in every section of the country and have been approved by Republican as well as Democratic governors and legislatures."

High Unemployment

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Nov. 6 that even though the United States had emerged from the worst recession since the 1930s in October, the unemployment rate rose to 10.2 percent, the highest in 26 years.

The unemployment rate among men was 10.7 percent and 8.1 percent among women.

According to the latest analysis by the National Law Employment Project, 34 states had enacted the alternative base provision by August 2009.

To receive the remaining two-thirds of the new law’s incentives, states must provide benefits to workers in at least two of these categories of unemployed workers: part-time workers, individuals who leave jobs for compelling family reasons such as relocation of a spouse, workers with dependent family members and permanently laid off workers who are enrolled in extensive job training programs to qualify for new occupations.

Twenty-six states no longer require part-time workers to seek full-time employment to qualify for jobless benefits.

"This change will have a huge impact because women comprise over two-thirds of the part-time work force," said Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security of the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center. "Many part-time workers cannot switch to full-time jobs because they have care giving responsibilities for children and elderly loved ones."

States have until August 2011 to qualify for federal funds. Seven states have not considered legislation or brought up measures for committee or floor votes. Bills in Texas, Alabama, Florida and Virginia were defeated by narrow margins because of opposition by employers who claimed that the federal funds came with too many strings.

Don Baylor, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a nonprofit institute for low- and moderate-income Texans in Austin, Texas, predicts that legislators will reconsider, given the loss of 7.3 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007 and projections that the unemployment rate will remain over 10 percent throughout 2010.

"Texas would receive $555 million in federal funds, which would keep food on the tables of thousands of unemployed Texans," he said. "It would also help them pay their mortgages, buy school supplies for their kids and prevent other Texans from becoming unemployed."

Jeff Hayes, senior research associate at the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a nonprofit organization that researches poverty, welfare and other concerns, says that states also benefit from unemployment benefits since recipients tend to spend the money immediately on basic necessities, rather than saving the funds.

"Studies show that unemployment benefits provide $2.15 in economic growth to states for every $1 in benefits spent by an unemployed worker," he said.

Sharon Johnson is a freelance reporter in New York City.