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Unemployment benefits matter: Telling worker stories in the COVID era

The COVID crisis has exposed many flaws in American institutions, and unemployment insurance is one of the more extreme examples. The percent of unemployed people receiving unemployment benefits before the pandemic was 20% to 40% in most states, but as low as 10% in Florida, North Carolina, and South Dakota. In March 2020 the CARES Act temporarily made the system more inclusive and generous, but millions of claimants had to wait many weeks to receive benefits. It remains difficult for many workers to receive benefits, something which creates considerable work for legal aid attorneys, trade unionists, and other activists.

Researchers within the ILR Ithaca Co-Lab are collecting stories of workers made unemployed during the pandemic, using repeated interviews over time. We ask participants about supports received from unemployment insurance, other benefits like food stamps, educational institutions, healthcare providers, unions, charity, friends, and family. We ask how do these supports can help a worker make a transition from unemployment to a desirable job, and what leads can lead her to give up her job search.

We are also gathering information from advocates in New York and around the country to identify the central problems and possible solutions. These include states with stronger UI systems than New York (e.g. Massachusetts) and those with less supportive systems (e.g. Florida and North Carolina). We are using interviews, analyses of policy documents, and a very brief Qualtrics survey. This is done in partnership with Legal Assistance of Western New York, a long-time collaborator with ILR researchers on unemployment issues.

We will produce a report that will identify ten problems faced by unemployed workers seeking benefits. It will tell the stories of workers who have faced these problems. This is an important time for doing this work, given the time-limited nature of the pandemic-era benefits and the political will in Washington and Albany to find a more sustainable fix for America’s broken unemployment benefits system.

This project is supported by an Engaged Cornell Opportunity Grant. For more information, please contact Dr Ian Greer, who is leading the project at