Only a quarter of workers who were laid off or furloughed at the height of the pandemic lockdown actually received timely unemployment benefit, according to a survey by Shift Project researchers at Harvard Kennedy School and University of California, San Francisco. The systemic failure caused deep privation, including hunger and housing insecurity.
The new research is based on a survey conducted in April and May of 2,500 workers who lost their jobs from 110 of the largest service sector companies in the United States — companies in the retail, food service, hospitality, grocery, pharmacy, fulfillment, or hardware sectors. The survey also found enormous variation between states, ranging from 77 percent of unemployed workers who applied for unemployment insurance (UI) receiving unemployment benefits in Minnesota to just 8 percent in Florida.
The report comes as Congress struggles to approve a new economic rescue package for the country, including the extension of unemployment benefits for affected workers.
“Recent debates over the appropriate amount of unemployment insurance benefits often assume that unemployed workers will actually receive these benefits,” said Daniel Schneider, professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), professor of sociology at Harvard, and co-principal investigator of the Shift Project. “Our research shows that was far from the case, and the consequences were catastrophic for working families.”
“Our research shows that it doesn’t have to be this way,” said Kristen Harknett, associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and the Shift Project’s co-principal investigator. “Although unemployed workers faced delays and barriers in the UI process in some states, states like Minnesota and Massachusetts got UI benefits into the hands of workers who needed them in a timely fashion. And these benefits made a huge difference in keeping workers afloat.”
Prior to the pandemic, the report notes, workers already faced hurdles when applying for unemployment insurance: they needed to document their job searches meticulously, faced long response times, and were also frustrated by technical glitches on state websites. The coronavirus pandemic, and the ensuing lockdown and economic crisis, exacerbated these inefficiencies.