About the Black Worker UI Project (2020) | Working America

About the Black Worker UI Project (2020)

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In 2020, millions of Americans suddenly found themselves out of work as a result of the economic collapse stemming from the pandemic. COVID-19 has had a profound impact on daily life across the country, but some communities have been harder-hit than others. Black workers are not only more likely to be unemployed during the pandemic, but also are much less likely to access or receive unemployment benefits (UI). According to national survey data from NORC at the University of Chicago, just 13% of out-of-work Black Americans received unemployment from April to June, compared to 24% of white workers and 22% of Hispanic workers. Families have struggled to navigate their states’ unemployment insurance (UI) systems, confronting often overburdened and confusing processes. Law, policy and practice may be at the root of these problems, but the solution begins with networked outreach and education.
Working America has teamed up with the National Employment Law Project to launch the Black Unemployment Insurance (BUI) project. We are doing direct outreach and building a network of volunteer peer educators. The goal is to increase UI accessibility and utilization in Black communities and to demand a just recovery for all.

Why it matters

Like many of the health and economic consequences we’ve endured in 2020, the pitfalls and structural racism in our UI systems are nothing new. From its establishment in 1935, unemployment insurance has always left out large portions of the workforce. Low-wage workers, seasonal workers and workers in industries that tend to be more highly populated by women and people of color are often excluded from receiving benefits.

Additionally, during periods of relative economic stability, conservative lawmakers in many states have slashed funding for UI, decreased payout durations and implemented harsher benefit calculations. All of this has led to eligible workers receiving less aid at the exact moment when they need it most. State leaders have failed to modernize UI technology, readjust benefit amounts to reflect current wages and the cost of living and protect families facing joblessness. Consequently, many state UI systems were woefully underprepared for the 2020 pandemic and economic recession.

Unemployment insurance is an important program that provides a bridge for workers experiencing job loss. It helps stabilize our economy and keep workers attached to the workforce during periods of economic downturn. The pandemic has highlighted the urgent need to strengthen our state-based UI system and made it critical for us to take up this issue through community-based action.

Our Approach

Working America knows working people know their circumstances and struggles best.

We started the BUI project by reaching out to nearly 15,000 working people and documenting their experiences with the unemployment system, their attitudes toward the system and their knowledge of the UI application process. The workers we spoke with who applied for UI detailed experiences of technical difficulties, long waits for benefits and an inability to communicate with UI agencies. Our conversations with workers also revealed that most people were not fully aware of basic information, including program eligibility and benefits. As a result, the lack of information proved to be one of the primary reasons many didn’t apply.

In response, Working America teamed up with NELP to provide people with information that can help them and their communities navigate the system. We published a UI Benefits Guide, hosted webinars with community leaders and UI experts and reached 3 million people a week with UI facts.

Through our outreach, we’re seeing an eagerness to take action and support those who encounter difficulties with the UI process. We plan to engage a broad base of peer organizers, activists, advocates and elected officials in a movement for a fair economy that guarantees benefits, rights and protections for all.

We hope you join us! If you want to support Working America’s work, you can donate below.