(WOMENSENEWS)–Women account for 7 out of 10 workers who leave jobs because of loss of child care, relocation of a spouse or other work-family conflicts, according to recent research by the New York-based National Employment Law Project.

In the majority of states, such workers are ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits, which average $350 a week, because they are considered to have "voluntarily left the labor force."

But thanks to provisions in the federal recovery program designed to modernize unemployment insurance, more workers with work-family conflicts are becoming eligible.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which President Barack Obama signed in February, provides $7 billion to help states extend jobless benefits to workers who have fallen through the cracks in the system. These include low-income workers, part-time workers and those with work-family conflicts.

About half the states had enacted reforms by August, according to the National Employment Law Project.

"States are beginning to recognize the contributions of women as breadwinners and caregivers," said Christine Riordan, a policy analyst at the National Law Employment Project. "In 1935 when the unemployment system was designed, 30 percent of women were in the paid work force. Today 66 percent are employed outside the home."

The National Employment Law Project estimates that 500,000 more workers each year could receive unemployment benefits if all the reforms in the federal act were incorporated by the states.

Support Increasingly Important

More than one-third of unemployed workers have been out of jobs for six months or more, amid an unemployment rate that reached 10.2 percent in October, the highest in 26 years, said Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security of the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center. "Providing adequate income support to unemployed women becomes increasingly important," she said.

States qualify for the first third of federal funding by changing the way they calculate applicants’ earnings so that more low-wage workers are eligible. (For a full story on this, see Women’s eNews story "Jobless Benefits Will Now Reach More Women.")

For the remaining two-thirds, states must provide benefits to workers in at least two of five other categories. These include those who:

  • Leave jobs for compelling family reasons, including domestic violence;
  • Work part time;
  • Have dependent family members;
  • Are permanently laid off and enrolled in extensive job training programs that qualify them for new occupations;
  • Those experiencing long-term unemployment who have not collected a full 26 weeks of state benefits.

In the category of leaving work for family reasons, 20 states now provide unemployment benefits to workers who leave jobs to care for ill family members.

"This change is extremely important for low-wage women who are the sole support of their families and are struggling to pay for the medical expenses of their children and other family members who may not have health insurance," 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. "Many of these women don’t get sick days, so they are forced to quit when a loved one becomes seriously ill."

Additional Family Leave Benefits

Also in the family leave category: 23 states now permit relocated spouses to collect unemployment insurance benefits.

"Almost 1 in 4 American families moves each year," said Kathy White, project director at the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, a Denver-based nonprofit that promotes economic security for Coloradoans. "This hits women hard because they are more likely than the men in their families to be the trailing spouse. Finding a new job isn’t easy for anyone because the United States has lost 7.3 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007. There are now six unemployed workers for every job."

In another area of family leave, 31 states provide unemployment benefits to workers who leave jobs because of domestic violence.

"Nearly all employed domestic violence survivors experience problems at work, such as being stalked by a perpetrator or being harassed with telephone calls," said Riordan of the National Law Employment Project. "Unemployment benefits enable these women to support themselves and their children, so that they don’t return to the perpetrators out of economic desperation."

Thirteen states have qualified for federal incentive funds by allowing jobless individuals to complete training that lasts longer than the normal duration of state benefits, typically 26 weeks.

"Instead of looking for a job and taking the first one that comes along, unemployed women in declining industries like textiles in Georgia can prepare for jobs in fields like health care, which are expanding and offer good salaries and benefits," said Elizabeth J. Appley, a lawyer who has represented the Women’s Policy Group, a think tank in Atlanta that recently changed its name to Georgia Women for a Change. The group develops policies to promote equality and has advocated for changes in Georgia’s unemployment eligibility laws.

Retraining Aids Transition

Retraining is of vital importance to women who are transitioning from welfare to the paid labor force, said 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.

"Recessions are very difficult for these women because they are often the first ones to be let go when companies cut back and don’t have the financial resources to survive," he said. "There are often long-term health and other serious consequences because these women often must cut back on spending on basic necessities for themselves and their children."

Entmacher, of the National Women’s Law Center, hopes more states will consider revising their eligibility criteria by the August 2011 deadline to qualify for federal funds.

Seven states have not considered legislation or brought up measures for committee or floor votes: Washington, North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Carolina, Mississippi and Delaware

Bills were defeated in four states–Alabama, Florida, Virginia and Texas–during the 2009 legislative sessions.

Georgia Women for a Change began advocating for changes in Georgia’s unemployment eligibility laws in 1990. They realized that it was not enough to help women gain a foothold in the labor force, says Appley, but that they also had to help women survive a job loss and prepare them for the next phases of their careers.

"Changing legislators’ views requires time. We used data provided by the National Employment Law Project to show that recipients spend their unemployment insurance checks on necessities, which keeps thousands of Georgia workers employed," said Appley. "We also formed partnerships with veterans’ groups who supported these changes because almost 40 percent of military families move each year. These efforts helped overcome opposition from the business lobby."

Sharon Johnson is a freelance reporter in New York City.