Filling the Gaps in the Unemployment Safety Net

Unemployment is a reality of most workers' careers - for example, a recent government report found that 85 percent of experienced workers have had at least one spell of unemployment in their careers. Low-wage workers are particularly hard hit by unemployment and are twice as likely to experience joblessness as their higher-wage counterparts.  With unemployment so prevalent, our economy counts on unemployment insurance benefits to smooth out the unexpected hardships that hit workers and their families when they lose their jobs. These benefits enable workers to escape temporary poverty and lasting financial hardships caused by job loss.

Unfortunately, outmoded eligibility rules mean that benefits are out of reach for many unemployed workers. In particular, state UI programs, which determine most of the rules that govern eligibility for benefits, have left low-wage workers, women and part-time workers struggling to qualify for the program.  Other growing segments of the workforce also fall through the cracks, including temporary workers, older workers and immigrant workers.

NELP is the nation's leading resource for states to identify the major gaps in their UI programs, while also providing the empirical research and legal analysis necessary to identify the best options for reform.  Over the last decade, for example, more than half the states have significantly modernized their UI programs with intensive support from NELP.

NELP's manual, Changing Workforce, Changing Economy:  State Unemployment Insurance for the 21st Century, is the go-to resource for short summaries of all the leading reforms (and accompanying model legislation) to help states modernize their UI programs. In addition, NELP has produced numerous fact sheets and research reports on key state policy reforms to close the gaps in the UI program for:

  • Low-Wage Workers:  Low-wage workers are unfairly denied benefits in many states that still fail to allow workers to count all of their latest earnings when they apply for benefits rather than adopting the "alternative base period." (Fact Sheet / Research Report)

  • Part-Time Workers:  Part-time workers, often women with family responsibilities, are far more likely to qualify for UI benefits when states do not require them to look for full-time work in order to qualify for UI benefits. (Fact Sheet / Cost Estimate / Research Report Estimate

  • Women Workers:  Women workers often leave work for compelling family reasons, such as the loss of child care, and many states have reformed their UI laws to help workers balance their demanding work and family responsibilities. (Fact Sheet / Research Report

  • Domestic Violence Survivors:  Many states have taken significant steps to provide UI benefits to domestic violence survivors who are often forced to quit their job in order to protect themselves and their children. (Fact Sheet / Cost Estimate / Research Report

  • Temporary Workers & Independent Contractors: The new "non-standard" workforce of temporary workers and those who are routinely misclassified by their employers as independent contractors often lose out on unemployment benefits, but that is changing in a growing number of states that have taken steps to ensure they qualify. (Fact Sheet / Research Report

  • Older Workers: In today's economy workers are employed well into their 60s, which has led many states in recent years to reform their UI laws to provide adequate jobless benefits to older workers who also are living on social security or a pension. (Fact Sheet

  • Immigrant Workers: Many documented immigrants are eligible for unemployment benefits but, depending on their status, can lose out on unemployment compensation unless they know their rights. (Fact Sheet 

For more information contact:

West Coast and Southwest States: Maurice Emsellem ( or Rebecca Smith (

Midwest States: Rick McHugh,

Northeast and Southeast States: Andrew Stettner,

Other key resources:

The General Accountability Office, especially its recent report

Legal Momentum

The Advisory Commission of Unemployment Compensation (1996) recommended many key changes to the UI program