Congress Should Reject Proposals That Would Stigmatize and Deny Benefits to Jobless Workers

Feb 02, 2012

By Jenice R. Robinson

Conferees from the U.S. House and Senate currently are considering an Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits extension proposal that includes two highly controversial provisions-drug testing all UI applicants and denying benefits to those without a high school diploma or equivalent-that would penalize the most vulnerable workers.

Federal unemployment insurance benefits expire Feb. 28, and Congress must act by then to ensure millions of workers aren't cut from this vital lifeline. Lawmakers are considering a bill now (H.R. 3630) that would extend benefits until the end of the 2012. Lawmakers have inserted drug testing and education provisions into the bill under the guise of doing what's best for the public interest. But in reality, proposals to drug test applicants and deny benefits to those without a high school diploma only serves to stigmatize and create new obstacles for those who have lost their jobs.

The bill includes a provision that would give states the authority to test all applicants for drug use. Such a move is based on stereotypes, invades privacy, may be unconstitutional, and is not cost effective at this time of limited state and federal resources.  

"Drug testing unemployment insurance applicants or beneficiaries is part of a growing  pattern of blaming the jobless for their predicament rather than an economic environment where there is one job opening for about every four people looking," said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, CLASP senior policy analyst. "States already have the authority to deny unemployment benefits to workers who lose their jobs due to drug use or workers who fail to land a job because they failed a screening. Opening the door to blanket testing all UI claimants is based on the false assumption that laid-off workers are more likely than others to have substance use problems."

Moreover, the bill would make it difficult for workers without a high school diploma to obtain unemployment benefits if they lose their jobs. Those without a high school diploma have an unemployment rate of 13.8 percent compared to the national average of 8.5 percent for all workers. Clearly, these workers are the most vulnerable, yet the bill includes a proposal to deny them unemployment benefits if they cannot prove they are in a program leading to a credential.

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