Skip to main content

The Journey of the Jobless

Congress boosted unemployment benefits. Now the challenge lies in getting them out to the unemployed, through underfunded state-level programs.


Like millions of Americans, Rosie Sullivan’s introduction to the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic began with a series of shifting unknowns. The question “would she get laid off?” turned into “when would she get laid off?” And after that, would she be able to apply for unemployment insurance? Then, would she ever receive the funds?

Before she lost her job, Sullivan was the assistant company manager for the national touring production of STOMP, a theater show featuring a small band of percussionists and dancers. The company was one of the last theater tours still operating in mid-March. The group got off their plane in Baltimore to travel for a show on the night of March 14 and found out it was canceled while they were still in the airport.

Then, everything was canceled.

Sullivan lives in New York City, but after the tour’s cancellation she flew home to Michigan to stay with her parents. From her parents’ home, she applied for benefits through New York’s unemployment insurance (UI) program.

Waking up bright and early a few days after losing her job because she wanted to “just get it done,” Sullivan logged in to New York’s UI website and began filling out the application. After a few minutes on the page, the system forced her out, showing a notification that the application had timed out.

OK, she thought. She just needed to be quicker. She wrote down all of her information so that she could quickly input it into the system. That didn’t work. She was getting kicked off the website after less than two minutes on a page.

The system wasn’t timing out, it was crashing, as a slew of laid-off workers, all with similar ideas to wake up early before the surge, tried to apply for benefits to keep themselves afloat.

As April ended, 30 million Americans have applied for UI since the coronavirus started shutting down cities and states in mid-March. The pandemic has not unfolded gradually like the Great Recession. In a matter of weeks, the unemployment rate has spiked like never before, as the need for social distancing spread, and the need for restaurant workers, landscapers, app developers, entertainers, dental hygienists, and myriad others collapsed.

Without stable sources of income, Americans turned to the program that they’re supposed to rely upon during times of crisis: unemployment insurance.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Sullivan’s frustrating experience on her home computer has likely been multiplied tens of thousands—maybe millions—of times. Across the country, state UI websites have crashed, and call lines have been inundated. Many jobless workers continue to try to access benefits. And those who get their claims in don’t necessarily get paid: Department of Labor data for March show that just 1.6 million new claimants received payments, out of 11.7 million initial claims. Other surveys and analyses reveal similar numbers.

As millions more layoffs pile up, the crisis has pushed long-standing issues with state UI programs into the spotlight: their systemic makeups, the cuts that some state programs have suffered over the past decade, as well as the way the federal UI program itself is built. State systems are historically underfunded and wildly variant—access can depend on what state you happen to find yourself in. The experience of the Great Recession should have, but did not, trigger a reassessment of whether state UI systems needed wide-scale support to upgrade, or maybe federalization to ensure rapid response across the entire unemployed population. Now, millions have been left stranded and frustrated, amid the greatest flood of unemployment claims in U.S. history.

AFTER DAYS OF TRYING to get into the online system, Sullivan tried to call the New York Department of Labor. But she was greeted with an automated directive to try at a different time due to the high call volume—and then an automatic hang-up.

Running out of options, she took to Twitter. Sullivan tweeted at the New York Labor Department. But what was most helpful were other claimants’ responses. One person gave her advice to call the phone lines incessantly. Even though the calls would abruptly end, the claimant said, eventually you get put on hold.

So Sullivan gave it a shot, and after about two dozen tries, she got hold music and eventually a live person. Because she already had all the information compiled after so many other unsuccessful attempts, in a matter of minutes, she finally submitted her claim.

Sullivan’s experience, though frustrating, is not necessarily the norm. She was able to get through, and she did so after dozens of phone calls, not hundreds. She applied in the early stages of the unemployment crisis; so while she encountered an overload, the surge in layoffs hadn’t even been reported yet. The wave of unemployed workers now must contend with a system built for a very different time.

Created in 1935 in the wake of the Great Depression, UI is a federal-state partnership. States levy taxes on employers, and these taxes make up the state’s trust fund. The more UI claims levied against them, the more employers pay in taxes (though states aren’t counting COVID-19 layoffs against employers). While employees don’t directly pay into the program, economists generally believe that employers pass some of these costs on to their workers.

The trust fund pays out benefits to jobless workers, typically 50 percent of their wages but sometimes more or less depending on the state. Workers must have lost their job through no fault of their own (meaning workers who’ve been fired or who quit their jobs aren’t eligible) and must be actively looking for work. The federal government also taxes employers in order to fund the administrative costs of the program (though this funding has eroded, being based on the previous year’s unemployment rate—last year, we had record-low unemployment), as well as shore up federal benefits when state benefits run out.

Since the New Deal era, little of the basic structure of UI has changed. Yet 85 years ago, the labor market was quite different from what it’s like today. Most recognized workers—generally white men—worked at a single employer for their entire lives. Today, the agricultural and manufacturing-based economy has transformed into a service-based economy characterized by low-wage and often unstable employment. Women are a major part of the labor force, and have been for decades. Wages have stagnated over the past decades, meaning UI benefits have stagnated too if they’re 50 percent of a worker’s wage.

In many states, part-time workers looking for part-time work aren’t eligible for UI. As gig work expands, more workers are classified as independent contractors, populations who aren’t generally eligible for UI. Seasonal workers, and workers in the low-wage labor market, characterized by volatile schedules and frequent job change, may face challenges meeting eligibility rules that require workers to have been on the job for a certain amount of time or to have made a certain amount of money. In addition, many states have further tightened UI eligibility, cut benefit levels, and reduced the maximum duration workers can receive benefits.

In March, before the pandemic really started to take its toll, just 29 percent of unemployed workers nationally received unemployment benefits, and in some states, that number is as low as 10 percent. “That’s a system that’s barely functioning. The rules are too restrictive,” says Michael Leachman, senior director of state fiscal research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. With the passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the federal government has tried to shore up the traditional UI system. Congress is incentivizing states to waive some onerous requirements, such as the one-week waiting period before benefits can be issued, job search requirements, and counting layoffs against an employer’s UI tax rate. They’ve created new programs, giving unemployed workers an additional $600 each week until July 31 (an unprecedented increase that will give all workers previously making up to around $75,000 per year a full replacement rate on their salary), and extending UI benefits by 13 weeks. The government has also released administrative funding to states to improve their infrastructures and hire more workers to deal with the onslaught of claims.

Importantly, given the arcane rules of UI eligibility, the CARES Act also created Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), specifically for workers who are left out of traditional UI. Independent contractors, self-employed workers, and workers with limited work history are eligible for PUA if they are deemed ineligible for the regular state UI.

The purpose of UI as an insurance program, whether traditional, federally extended, or PUA, is not just insurance for the worker, but also for the economy. During economic downturns, programs like UI and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly called food stamps) are meant to act as automatic stabilizers, covering more people when it’s needed and contracting when times are better. In this way, the funds paid out to workers stimulate the economy, because they’re quickly spent.

The last time the UI program saw a major surge was during the Great Recession. Between 2009 and 2013, Congress extended emergency unemployment benefits multiple times, up to 99 weeks in many states. When state UI trust funds ran out, states borrowed from the federal government. UI stimulated demand, saving jobs and closing one-fifth of GDP shortfall during the recession.

After the recession, states should have learned that they couldn’t disinvest in their UI programs in good times—they had to shore up their trust funds in order to prepare for the next crisis. But not all states took those lessons to heart. Just 30 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia were solvent at the beginning of the year, meaning there were enough funds in the state trust fund to pay out benefits for a year in a crisis. And this crisis will be much bigger than the last.



Congress expanded eligibility for jobless benefits in the CARES Act.  JULIA WEEKS/APSTK VIA AP PHOTO

PART OF THE REASON FOR the systemic overload is that states have been relying on decades-old mainframe computing systems. A 2010 survey of states by the National Association of State Workforce Agencies found that more than 90 percent of states used these legacy systems, and only one state had modernized both their benefits system and payroll tax collection system.

But that was 2010. A year earlier, as part of the federal stimulus package responding to the last economic crash, the federal government made funding available to states to update their systems, provided that they altered program requirements to ensure more workers received UI benefits. So did states modernize after the Great Recession, and after the federal government aimed to incentivize modernization?

Many states started, though only 16 have completely modernized their systems. And even so, most have still been overwhelmed by the surge of applications.

In 2017, a Department of Labor letter to states regarding supplemental funding opportunities read: “UI programs in many states operate using … obsolete systems [that] had difficulty ramping up to process recession-level workloads and modifying their systems to accommodate required programs changes … These difficulties delayed payments to eligible unemployed workers and frustrated potential beneficiaries.” The letter also recognizes “a scarcity of technical personnel with knowledge of older hardware and software languages.” As has been widely reported and mocked, part of the issue lies in a coding language called COBOL—“common business-oriented language.” Many state UI systems are programmed with COBOL, developed in 1959. COBOL is generally used on mainframes, which are large physical computers located on-site in a business office, in contrast with the off-site cloud computing infrastructure used commonly today. But beyond government, COBOL remains in use for a large proportion of the world’s major banks, insurance companies, airlines, and other private industries that consistently rely on mainframes. Indeed, 71 percent of Fortune 500 companies use mainframes, specifically IBM mainframes, on which COBOL is often used.

COBOL was considered to be a dying language even decades ago. Most universities and coding programs no longer teach it. And so when COBOL turns into “spaghetti code”—meaning source code that’s too convoluted to understand or maintain—there’s often no one around to fix it. COBOL programmers are literally dying out; the New Jersey governor pleaded during a televised press conference in early April for COBOL programmers to volunteer to help the state. In response to sudden needs, IBM (developer of the most commonly used mainframes) recently launched a training initiative to teach COBOL.

Why did everyone stick with COBOL? The systems work well enough when relatively few jobless workers rely on them. So they’ve rarely been improved and haven’t been optimized to scale. Change is risky for inherently conservative institutions like the banking system, and modernization is expensive. The latter is particularly important for state UI agencies.

The federal stimulus grants for UI modernization, which totaled $4.4 billion across 39 states, were extremely limited. Most states have balanced-budget requirements, and they can’t go into debt funding their own system modernization. In 2016—the last year grantees were announced by the Department of Labor—most states received less than $500,000 in funds.

Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation specializing in unemployment insurance, points out that for Medicaid and SNAP, the federal government paid 90 percent reimbursement over seven years for states to redesign their systems. “Nothing ever happened like that at [the Department of] Labor,” he says. The grants the federal government did provide for UI modernization “[weren’t] any kind of real, sustained investment. States really had to raise their own money to do these IT modernization processes … [with] no federal matching for [them].”

Some states have been planning to migrate their systems away from mainframes for years, and yet were still caught unawares by the crush of applications due to the pandemic. New York, where Sullivan applied for benefits, recently announced a partnership with Google, Verizon, and management consulting firm Deloitte to update its application portal. Prior to that, it was asking claimants to find a fax machine to submit pay stubs to the UI office.

Yet inadequate systems make more than just application processes difficult. A number of quirks exacerbate the challenges of receiving benefits. In an effort to ease the burden on workers needing to recertify their claims, in Georgia a claimant’s employer must do so every week—transferring that burden to someone with much less stake in whether a worker gets their benefits. Claimants in Georgia have been missing weeks of benefits when their employers forget or don’t realize what they’re supposed to do. In other states, when a UI claimant forgets their personal identification number (PIN), they can’t simply reset it online—they must successfully speak to a worker on the phone or even wait for it to be mailed to them.

In Sullivan’s case, she was successful submitting her claim and getting approved for UI, but the worker she spoke with said she had to enroll in direct deposit online. She tried to, but the change would not process. She could only call the phone lines again and again, helplessly, as the state sent her benefits to her New York address on a prepaid debit card issued by KeyBank. Calling KeyBank’s help lines was also unsuccessful.

She eventually was able to change her direct deposit information, but $900 in UI benefits was still sitting on that KeyBank card in the mailbox of her apartment building in New York.

Luckily, Sullivan’s boyfriend went to her place and was able to access her mailbox—Sullivan’s roommate had mailed him a key. He then mailed Sullivan her debit card.

What if she didn’t have a friend in New York to get her mail for her? What if she wasn’t staying rent-free with her parents? What if she desperately needed that $900 to survive?

What are happy hypotheticals for Sullivan are very real questions for others.

OVER THE PAST DECADES, states have diverged in their approach to UI, as some have altered policies in order to please employers over workers. Back during the Great Recession, the majority of states exhausted their trust funds and had to borrow from the federal government. As the country recovered, states needed to pay those loans back; after a short grace period, federal UI taxes on employers would increase to make up the gap. More conservative states instead covered the costs by slashing benefits and benefit duration to pay down the debt.

Modernization does not necessarily equal UI benefits in a jobless worker’s pocket. Florida’s Reemployment Assistance program—the state’s name for UI—was modernized in 2013 and specifically designed to keep benefit access low, according to a Politico report. The new system, designed by Deloitte, was riddled with glitches and errors even when it debuted seven years ago. (Deloitte delivered a similarly error-prone UI system to Massachusetts that same year.)

A Florida audit report from 2019 also documented known errors in the system.

Melissa Whitworth of Orlando, Florida, was working as an actress before the pandemic hit and has been struggling to apply for Reemployment Assistance for a month. Seeking to avoid an overloaded system, Whitworth tried filing her claim on the website well after midnight.

Still, she was hit with error message after error message, which Whitworth reads to me because she saved screenshots, in case there’s something like a class action lawsuit. She wasn’t successful, and then the state took the site down for a few days in order to process existing claims.

In early April, Florida hastily unveiled a new, simplified website—essentially an electronic form—where users give basic information, and then state workers themselves input that information into the original website. Whitworth was successful in completing that form but is still waiting to hear from the state what else she needs to do.

In her circle of friends, the majority of whom are out of work, she doesn’t know anyone who has succeeded in filing a claim and getting benefits paid out. Indeed, according to reporting by Orlando’s WESH 2 News, every state in the country had their trust fund balance fall during the first two weeks in April—except for Florida. In Florida, the trust fund actually increased, taking in more from employers in taxes than it paid out to unemployed workers.

On April 24, the state announced that less than 22 percent of UI claims had been paid, out of 702,000 applicants. And that only reflects those fortunate enough to get their claims into the system.

Even before the pandemic, Florida’s rules were so restrictive that, on average, just one in every ten jobless workers benefited from the program. “Here we are at a point where our system couldn’t handle [UI] claims under normal circumstances, much less the influx now,” says Cindy Huddleston, an attorney and senior policy analyst at the Florida Policy Institute in Orlando. The state has had to “suddenly go from zero to a hundred miles per hour overnight.”

In addition to flexibilities to ease access to UI, the federal government also loosened merit pay requirements for UI staff workers. This means that states can more easily outsource essential functions; instead of hiring more government staff in light of its abysmal 2 percent answer rate for workers calling the UI agency for assistance, Florida recently spent millions on contracts with private call centers. The name of Florida’s program—Reemployment Assistance—offers a hint as to why the state is facing so many problems: Conservative lawmakers want people working more than they want people to have UI to meet their basic needs. Unsurprisingly, Florida has one of the lowest average benefits in the country at $252.87 per week, a mere 38 percent of average wages, and benefits are limited to just 12 weeks. Florida, too, has underinvested in its technology, forcing claimants like Whitworth to struggle to apply amid frequent website crashes. At one point, the state had to switch to paper applications, creating the opportunity for uncomfortable coverage of masked Floridians physically in line to get print applications during a pandemic. (Note that before the pandemic, the state generally didn’t allow paper applications for anyone.) Following in Florida’s footsteps, last year the Alabama state legislature cut the maximum number of weeks of assistance from the standard 26 weeks to as few as 14, depending on the unemployment rate. The legislation, partly influenced by a desire to attract employers to the state, was heralded to save the state trust fund $45 million per year. The bill passed during a time of record-low unemployment for the state. It went into effect in January.

The current crisis “shows the necessity of investing in adequate state services and properly equipping our state departments when times are good in order to prepare for situations like we’re seeing now,” says Dev Wakeley, policy analyst at Alabama Arise, a state policy advocacy group. It’s easy to cut UI when unemployment rates are low and the idea of another recession is out of sight, out of mind.

Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, and South Carolina join Alabama and Florida on the list of states that have recently cut the standard benefit duration.

Much of the reasoning behind these moves is that unemployment benefits encourage workers to stay home instead of returning to the workforce. There is some small truth to this—the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that UI recipients stayed jobless an extra 1.6 weeks compared to non-beneficiaries—but even so, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“Having access to UI allows people to find the jobs that are best for them,” says David Cooper, senior economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. “Giving people that cushion is a way to strengthen workers’ bargaining power and keep them from taking more permanent hits to their earnings.” In other words, UI allows people to take the time they need to find a job that fully replaces their old one, with high wages and good worker protections, instead of taking the first low-paying job available.

Importantly, cutting benefits disproportionately hurts workers of color. Black workers consistently have higher unemployment rates than white workers, and the typical duration of an unemployment spell for this group is longer, too. On average, black workers receive unemployment for about 26 weeks—the standard maximum duration for benefits. For white workers, it’s 20 weeks.

It’s not just inadequate benefit amounts and antiquated rules that workers have to deal with, but also poor communication by the state departments themselves. Combine a systemic overload with confusing directions that are often completely inaccessible for people who don’t speak Englishpeople with disabilities, or the 17 percent of Americans who only access the internet on a mobile device. It’s difficult for people to apply for benefits if they don’t understand the eligibility rules.

The People’s Parity Project, a national advocacy group led by law students, scanned each state’s agency website in mid-March, during the early days of the pandemic and its concomitant layoffs, and before the federal government stepped in. The project found that many states gave inaccurate information regarding UI benefits—even those states with otherwise laudable UI programs. Massachusetts, which has one of the highest average benefits in the country, claimed on its website that workers who receive a 1099 tax form (for independent contractors) are ineligible for traditional benefits. This isn’t true—some workers are improperly (and illegally) classified as independent contractors and are otherwise eligible for UI. Yet these workers would have been discouraged from applying.

That language has since been removed from Massachusetts’s website.

Other states that had removed the one-week waiting period and the job search requirement to ease UI eligibility didn’t always clarify the new rules on their websites.

“Informing people of their rights is almost as important as the rights themselves,” says Sejal Singh, the project’s national policy director. “If [people] don’t know that they can apply for unemployment insurance, they’re not going to apply, and they’re not going to get access to this lifesaving benefit.”


Workers protest the inadequate unemployment system in Orlando, Florida.  ALEX MENENDEZ/AP PHOTO

MICHIGAN ALSO TIGHTENED UI after the Great Recession. The state, which even before 2008 had the highest unemployment rate in the country, was the first to cut the maximum weeks of UI, reducing 26 weeks to 20. The legislature also passed a law allowing wage garnishment of UI overpayments and another that allowed claimants to be booted off UI for failing or refusing a prospective employer’s drug test. The legislature declined to update the maximum weekly benefit or peg it to a certain percentage of median income. The maximum benefit has been eroding over time, stuck at $362 since 2002.

“Instead of making unemployment insurance more responsive to the economic hardship in the state, the legislature made it more punitive,” says Peter Ruark, senior policy analyst at the Michigan League for Public Policy. Changes centered the employer over the worker. For example, the Michigan UI agency has an “employer ombudsman” to serve employers in the state. There’s no equivalent representation for workers.

Like Florida, Michigan modernized its program’s technology, and like Florida, it was tilted away from UI users. Michigan’s new system, replacing one that relied on COBOL, created an algorithm that automatically flagged fraud, even going back years. It also automatically garnished wages and seized tax refunds of workers accused of fraud, some who had no idea they had been accused of UI fraud because they had not logged in to their UI account for years. The collected funds swelled the agency’s coffers, which was sometimes used for general state operations.

As with similar algorithms that automate weighty decisions about people’s lives, the algorithm wasn’t always right. In fact, it was inaccurate 93 percent of the time, a percentage that went undiscovered until affected people declared bankruptcy, lost their homes, or even committed suicide.

“The system was and is a very modern system,” says Ruark. “It’s not just about old systems versus new systems. It’s about fair systems.” After several lawsuits, a switch to human intervention for fraud cases, and a change in administration, the Michigan agency seems to be turning itself around. As the pandemic has spread, Michigan’s UI response has been one of the better ones in the nation. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who replaced Republican Rick Snyder in 2019, issued executive orders to restore the maximum benefit duration to 26 weeks, waive job search requirements, and expand eligibility, temporary changes that could only be made permanent by the state legislature. The state was also one of the first to begin issuing the extra $600 to weekly UI checks.

I spoke with three separate sources who specifically lauded the Michigan UI agency director’s response to the pandemic. Indeed, the new director, Steve Gray, used to be an advocate, heading up a University of Michigan Law School team that provided legal assistance to UI claimants affected by the false-fraud fiasco. With the new flexibilities that have been put in place, the state was “looking for areas in the law that are catching people that should be getting paid, but because of the way the law was structured, they’re not,” says Gray. It’s not easy for every jobless worker to file for UI in Michigan—though there are success stories. Over the phone from Ludington, Michigan, Diane Smith tells me she isn’t sure her story is one that I’d be interested in hearing. “Fortunately for me, it went really smoothly … it wasn’t everything I’m hearing about, thankfully,” she says. Smith, a dental hygienist, was able to apply for benefits in about 25 to 30 minutes. She applied on March 17, a week before Michigan’s stay-at-home order was in place, so Smith may have missed a wave of claimants in the system.

Smith’s husband is self-employed and not eligible for traditional UI, so he’s applying for PUA benefits. How that works is the state must determine that a claimant is ineligible for the regular UI program before approving their application for PUA. Many states have been slow to set up these systems—it’s an entirely new program—though benefits are retroactive.

Smith’s story does not mean that all Michiganders are easily applying for benefits. There are still consistent reports of backlogs and delays even as the state is lauded for its response. But her story is a reminder that some people—millions of people—have been successful at accessing UI.

While we consider how millions of Americans are shut out of the UI program, we should also consider that the program is operating as it should be to some extent. Right now, the country needs a program that will put money in the pockets of Americans. Sure, the UI program needs improvements and needs to be modernized to support more workers. But for millions of Americans, UI is getting them money they need.

ALTERING THE UI SYSTEM to better support workers should be a high priority given the crisis, but it should also be a high priority in order to prepare for the next crisis.

Improving the program is tricky because there is no consistent user base that can advocate for the program. Think about Social Security and Medicare, which have millions of seniors and public-interest groups like AARP concerned about shoring up the programs and defending them from possible cuts. UI’s base, by contrast, is wide-ranging and constantly shifting. There can be no coordinated effort of recipients agitating for the program because being on the program is temporary. Most of the workforce is a potential recipient, but UI is of no concern until the unthinkable happens. And the fact that UI doesn’t support independent contractors and gig workers certainly doesn’t help. The program is complex, and there just aren’t as many people who are familiar with the murky details of UI like they are with more popular public-assistance programs. For instance, one state policy organization I reached out to for this story told me they had no one on staff who could speak to how the state’s system works.

States should take up modernization efforts on their own—not just technologically, but policy-wise as well. It’s not 1935, and the UI program should reflect the realities of the current labor market. Obviously, the gig economy is a huge part of that. And many people rely on an array of ever-shifting low-wage and part-time work that also doesn’t meet the traditional eligibility requirements for UI. Sometimes, people may have to leave a job to take care of a sick family member. (Welcome to 2020.)

The federal government can standardize UI and offer states incentives to build better programs. The current crisis may be opening a window to make improvements, particularly for independent contractors and gig workers. “The pandemic [UI] programs [are] temporary, but hopefully [will lead] to a more permanent fix to some of these exclusions,” says Stettner with the Century Foundation. Or the government could just federalize the program. The need for a functional UI program nationwide is particularly important given its role as an automatic stabilizer during crises. UI is currently a mosaic of vastly different state programs, but the federal government could ensure that workers receive the benefits they need by taking control of the program and using the federal taxes already levied on employers to finance it. UI, after all, was created alongside Social Security, a federal program in which eligibility rules are the same for everyone.

The U.S. could also expand little-known provisions, like work sharing, in which employers reduce salaries across the board instead of laying people off, and the government steps in to pay the difference. This benefits workers, of course, but it helps employers too because they can keep their employees even during a crisis. It’s also less expensive for the government than paying full UI benefits to each worker. Work sharing is currently supporting workers in Germany: Nearly half a million companies are deploying the tool, affecting about 20 percent of the German workforce. In the U.S., only 27 states and the District of Columbia have work-sharing provisions on the books, and we can’t even be sure if employers are well versed in what work sharing is and what it can do for their businesses.

One has to wonder if many of these progressive policies or federalization can be enacted without a groundswell of worker advocacy. Right now, a significant portion of the population is currently receiving UI benefits, and many more are eligible and trying to access them. During the Great Depression, there was mass organizing and militant protests by unemployed workers. We didn’t see anything on that scale during the Great Recession, but as we all know, these are unprecedented times, and the scale of the crisis is perhaps bigger than we can now fathom.

“This is the point where workers get sick of waiting for their benefit and just decide that unemployment insurance doesn’t work,” says Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.

“Or,” she says, “they come together and demand something better.”

Kalena Thomhave is a Michigan-based freelance writer on poverty and inequality, and a former Prospect writing fellow.

The American Prospect depends on reader support

If you are scraping by right now, please don’t give us anything. But if you have the ability to support independent, non-profit journalism, we are so grateful. Your voluntary contribution helps keep this website paywall-free. There are many ways to give. You can use our one-time donation form. Or click to ActBlue, or PayPal, or even Facebook. You can browse our Prospect Perks page, and sign up as a subscriber with a range of benefits, including an opt-in to receive the print magazine by mail. Whatever works for you.