Federal policymakers extend unemployment insurance but fail to fix the barriers to access

On December 27, 2020, the president signed a $900 billion relief agreement aimed at providing support to Americans struggling in the wake of the COVID-19 health and economic crises.

The bill includes several provisions that will help Latino workers and their families—who have been among the hardest hit by illness and job loss—including a new round of $600 stimulus checks, additional funding for emergency rental housing assistance, and provisions that provide more access to the Earned Income and Child Tax Credits for in 2021.

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Included in the most recent legislation is an extension of emergency unemployment insurance (UI) programs implemented earlier this year. While these programs are critical to economic recovery, these benefits remained out of reach for millions of workers due to antiquated state unemployment systems that were unable to update efficiently or adjust to the increased demand. Furthermore, Congress has not provided funding for state UI agencies. Without that investment, millions of workers will continue to struggle to access these critical benefits.

This is especially significant for Latino workers, who have already been underserved and faced considerable barriers in obtaining state and federal economic support. Latinos are already less likely to be able to work from home and are concentrated in industries that have been particularly impacted by COVID-19-related closures.

According to an UnidosUS poll from July 2020 many Latino households in Texas, Florida, and Arizona that lost jobs and income because of COVID-19 and accessed UI have relied on these benefits to make ends meet. Yet, majorities of Latinos also reported they were not able to access the unemployment benefits they needed.

Among Latino workers collecting unemployment benefits, large majorities in all three states said they use their benefits to cover necessities, such as food and groceries (76-86%), utilities (65-79%), and paying their mortgage or rent (63-73%). Even with unemployment benefits at their current levels, many households (51-58%) said that the benefits do not make up for a lot of their lost income and that they still do not have enough money for necessities.

Latino workers also faced numerous barriers in accessing unemployment insurance benefits since they were first available in March—with questions about eligibility leading to between 39-44% of respondents from applying at all. While this was a considerable barrier for independent contractors and gig workers who were newly eligible for benefits, Latino workers across the board reported that difficulty navigating antiquated and cumbersome state unemployment insurance systems was a barrier for them. The extreme pressure on outdated technology and limited staff at state agencies led to confusion about eligibility requirements, made applying via phone or online portals time consuming and in some cases impossible, and inhibited the ability of many workers to get information in Spanish.

According to the poll, only half of Latino workers had reported applying for unemployment benefits and between 11%-18% of applicants were rejected completely. Considering that Latinos have been among the most likely workers to have lost jobs or income due to the pandemic—40% having lost one job since March, and more than 60% having lost two or more sources of income—the lack of access is clearly having an impact on the communities’ recovery.

If they were able to speak with someone, the systems often failed to provide adequate information or assistance about UI benefits in Spanish. In Florida, some 43% of Latinos said they did not have access to enough information in Spanish from state agencies and were unable to fully understand and complete the process of accessing benefits because of this barrier alone. In October, UnidosUS spoke with Regina* who shared that she asked for a UI application in Spanish from her state UI agency. After reviewing the documents though, Regina could not understand the questions and could not speak with anyone directly, so she asked her daughter to help her apply using the English forms. Unfortunately, many people do not have someone they can depend on to help in this situation.



Another issue plaguing Latinos in accessing UI benefits was time. In Florida, 42% of respondents had to apply three or more times before they were able to complete the process. For Latinos who were able to get through the complex and antiquated state UI systems and apply for benefits, between 52% and 70% of respondents faced a wait of a month or longer before they received their benefits because of backlogs.

Every day that workers do not access the benefits they need, is another day that they must worry about how they will make ends meet. This is especially true for Latinos, who are falling into debt as a result of the economic slowdown. UnidosUS will continue working to ensure that Latinos are aware of available economic support programs, including the eligibility requirements and how to best access these benefits. This includes pushing Congress to provide funding for states to update and improve their unemployment systems to allow for more effective processing and access. State agencies must implement clearer application filing processes, linguistically and culturally relevant outreach, and propagation of benefits for Latino workers.


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