In March 2020, communities across the United States realized the gravity of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the deadly reach of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. As businesses shut their doors to prevent the transmission of the disease, the joint federal-state Unemployment Insurance program, which funds and administers unemployment benefits, provided important income replacement for people who could no longer report to work. Today, as March’s waves of temporary layoffs turn into permanent job losses, the role of the Unemployment Insurance system in stabilizing the U.S. economy and providing income security to unemployed workers and their families is no less crucial.

Yet although the continuing coronavirus recession makes clear the importance of unemployment benefits, the severe strains on the Unemployment Insurance system illuminate the deep flaws in the program. Inadequate financing for administration continues to cause long delays for workers who apply for unemployment benefits, as well as the denial of benefits for eligible workers. Stingy benefits paid by many states also leave workers relying on a patchwork system of uncertain federal benefits supplements subject to expiration. And the overlapping timing of this economic crisis with the national uprising over anti-Black racism shines a light on widespread racial disparities in access to unemployment benefits.

These increasingly visible failings are now spurring policymakers to better understand problems with the UI system and how they could be addressed through reforms at the state and federal levels. In this issue brief, we bring new findings to bear on the conversation around UI reform. We document the close connections between worker organization and access to unemployment benefits, as well as workplace collective action.

Read the full article about unemployment insurance benefits by Alexander Hertel-Fernandez and Alix Gould-Werth at Equitable Growth.