For the Unemployed, Holes in the Safety Net

KEITH BROOKS and MANNY NESS

January 14, 1991|By KEITH BROOKSand MANNY NESS

ROCKVILLE CENTER, NEW YORK — As unemployment rates climb to their highest levels in over three years, jobless Americans no longer have the same safeguards that were available during previous recessions. The maximum 26 weeks of unemployment benefits is the least in 20 years; the 34 percent of jobless workers collecting benefits a sharp decline from 69 per cent in 1975. Even if this is not the big crash some believe is inevitable within the next decade, this country's only safety net for the jobless -- the unemployment insurance system -- is full of gaping holes.

The official national unemployment rate of 6.1 per cent tells only part of the jobless picture. Over a million more people are unemployed today than a year ago. The 515,000 new unemployment claims filed nationwide the week before Christmas was the highest since February 1983. Unemployment rates would nearly double if more than 5.5 million involuntary part-time workers and more than 800,000 discouraged workers who have completely dropped out of the work force were added to the 7.35 million officially counted as unemployed.

The downturn is hitting a cross section of American workers. The financial-service sector, on which much of the celebrated Reagan recovery was built, has lost 50,000 jobs since 1987 on Wall Street alone. State and local governments facing fiscal crisis have announced civil-service layoffs, hitting black and other minority workers particularly hard. And while much attention has focused on white-collar unemployment, manufacturing is at its lowest point since 1982, with 200,000 jobs lost in November, including 55,000 in the auto industry.

What help can the unemployed expect from their government? Unemployment benefits were cut from 65 weeks in 1977 to a scant 26 weeks today -- making the unemployment insurance system increasingly irrelevant to most jobless workers. Last year, 2 million Americans exhausted all benefits; over 100,000 in Maryland alone.

Although still unemployed, these workers are no longer counted as receiving benefits; thus there has been a 35 percent drop in those collecting benefits. Also, stricter federal and state eligibility requirements have caused more benefit denials and disqualifications. And the growth of the low-paying, non-union, service-sector jobs with high turnover and part-time work weeks has hindered many of the jobless from gaining access to unemployment insurance.

According to Rep. Thomas Downey, D-New York, who along with Rep. Don Pease, D-Ohio, introduced the Unemployment Compensation Reform Act last January, ''It is vital we reform the unemployment insurance system,'' which is ''woefully unprepared for the next recession. Benefits are inadequate, administrative funding too restrictive, and unemployment taxes are insufficient to cover costs.'' Opposed by President Bush, the bill was killed last summer.

For the unemployed to receive even the minimal protections previously available President Bush must remove the obstacles imposed by the Reagan administration that currently prevent every state in the country from qualifying for $7 billion lying unused in a federal fund specifically earmarked for a 13-week extended benefit program.

Phil Van Gelder, chair of the Maryland and D.C. AFL-CIO Unemployment Insurance Committee, notes that state unemployment-insurance funds should also be tapped for benefit extensions. In 1982, Maryland set an example nationally by using its unemployment-insurance fund to provide an additional 13 weeks of benefits to replace money cut by President Reagan. It is time for Maryland to reactivate this dormant program by lowering the unreasonably high insured unemployment rate needed to trigger it on. Maryland's fund currently has $530 million.

Changes in eligibility standards are also needed at the state level. From 1980-1986 31 states raised the number of weeks worked and amount of earnings required to collect benefits; 20 states changed computation formulas to yield a lower weekly benefit, and most states set stricter guidelines for qualifications.

But even with easier access to unemployment insurance and more weeks of payments, few could survive financially on the benefit, which is set by state government and averaged $164 a week in Maryland in 1989, and a sub-poverty level $159 nationally. Safeguards against evictions, mortgage foreclosures, repossessions and utility turnoffs, and provisions for health care are also necessary for those unemployed through no fault of their own. And there is a need for an effective job-retraining program.

The Bush administration will not act without public pressure. A coalition of the unemployed, labor, civil-rights, religious and community groups, along with elected officials of our cities has to press federal and state government to implement these reforms. During the early 1980s advocacy groups won emergency benefit extensions, mortgage-assistance programs and other measures in a number of states.

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