According to the state data, low-wage earners do not make use of the state’s unemployment insurance program.
The fear of losing housing, food, transportation, and basic necessities can be overwhelming.
The Minnesota Unemployment Insurance program is supposed to protect workers from these harms. Through this program, a full-time minimum wage worker who accesses unemployment insurance (UI) receives about $800-$1,000/month for six months while searching for work.
But UI does not protect all workers equally. State program data illustrate that the program heavily and disproportionately serves white males in the construction trades.
According to that same data, thousands of Minnesotans who lose work in hotel, restaurant, retail, temp work, and low-wage health care are unable to access unemployment each year and instead turn to Minnesota’s less generous welfare programs. These Minnesotans lose jobs due to illness and emergencies where no sick or personal time is allowed. Unpredictable and inflexible scheduling are rampant. Racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and abusive employer practices pervade these industries.
State Representative Mohamud Noor (60B) sees the disparity firsthand. Noor has become a de facto (not formally or legally recognized) navigator of unemployment insurance for many constituents and community members. He sometimes fields daily concerned calls.
“It’s a complicated legal process and people do not know their rights,” said Noor. “You need to know the terms and the buzzwords, the computer system, the documentation requirements. The language barriers are formidable and many of the interpreters don’t understand the legal process.”
Noor recently assisted a constituent who worked 17 years in janitorial services for a local hospital. She had an exemplary employment record and was let go unexpectedly. Noor, a computer scientist and legislator, strived to help her access unemployment but was unsure whether she would succeed.
“Losing a job is disruptive to everything – your home, your family, your children’s education,” he said. “Unlike other systems, there is no support in UI and no navigators for people who are unfamiliar with the process.”
Bosteya Jama, site director of the Cedar Riverside Neighborhood Revitalization Program, said there is significant misinformation circulating about unemployment. She sees employees who are injured at work in medical assembly or warehouses, but they are too intimidated to apply. She sees unfair job losses in personal care attendant work, Walmart, and child care, but workers do not access unemployment insurance.
“I work with many elders who have lost work, but they are scared of the system and they do not know who to call. I tell them they are eligible but they have heard stories. They don’t know any of the rules surrounding the program,” said Jama.
Advocates – including Voices for Racial Justice, Legal Aid, Take Action Minnesota, CTUL, and Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless – are advocating for improved access to unemployment and due process for all Minnesota workers.
“The inability to access the Minnesota Unemployment Insurance program is a severe racial inequity issue. The program as it exists now would benefit from a Racial Equity Impact Assessment – a tool to help policymakers and local communities understand who is most impacted by Unemployment Insurance, what disparity is being addressed by Unemployment Insurance, how Unemployment Insurance can achieve racial equity goals, the potential negative impacts of Unemployment Insurance, and what can be done to ensure that adequate funding, implementation strategies, and accountability mechanisms are in place for Unemployment Insurance,” said Brett Grant, Policy and Research Director at Voices for Racial Justice.
To learn more about unemployment insurance, visit: https://www.uimn.org/
Jessica Webster is a lawyer who advocates for changes to the unemployment insurance program.
You can learn more about unemployment insurance and other legislative issues in The Quilt, being released in Fall 2019.