Introduction and summary
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Unions have helped workers during the COVID-19 pandemic in a number of ways, including by improving safety procedures for grocery store workers, securing paid leave for postal service workers, and lifting pay for some essential workers. They have even helped jobless Americans sign up for state unemployment benefits, which is far too often a daunting process.
Unfortunately, during the COVID-19 recession, many unemployed workers faced difficulties accessing unemployment benefits—a long-standing problem for the U.S. unemployment insurance (UI) system even before the pandemic. Over the past several decades, only about one-third of all jobless workers received unemployment benefits, many because of restrictive eligibility requirements, but many others because of a lack of program awareness and the hurdles involved in applying for benefits. Indeed, some studies suggest that only about half of jobless workers eligible for unemployment insurance receive benefits.
Low recipiency rates—the share of jobless workers receiving benefits—harm millions of unemployed workers who miss out on the benefits they need to pay for rent, groceries, and other necessities. Moreover, historically marginalized workers, including Black and Hispanic workers and those with less education, are less likely to receive benefits,…