Left on Their Own: New Study Shows Unemployment Benefits Often Elude Family Caregivers

A new report from AARP, CLASP, and National Employment Law Project (NELP) shines a light on the opportunities and shortcomings of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits as a support system for people who seek work after leaving their jobs to care for sick or disabled family members. The report, Access to Unemployment Insurance Benefits for Family Caregivers, combines legal analysis of state UI rules and in-depth interviews with UI agency officials for a comprehensive overview of the issues. It finds that, though some states have UI rules in place to accommodate family caregivers, the current system is falling short for many workers, as a result of both outdated rules and improper implementation.

The story of Laura, a worker in Arizona, provides a window into the implications of the policy findings. Like so many adults in the U.S., Laura lost her parents after an extended period of caregiving. The care Laura provided was invaluable to her parents, but came at a high price to her own economic security—an outcome that reflects our country’s weak safety net for caregivers. Even when the law suggested that there should have been supports available to her, the system failed Laura, denying her the benefits she was eligible to receive.

Laura’s father, who suffered from lymphoma, was struggling to care for his wife, who had Alzheimer’s. As his cancer treatments escalated, he could no longer care for both of them. Laura quit her job in Phoenix and moved back to her hometown, where she found another position. She worked during the day and then tended to her parents at night, preparing meals for the following day and assisting them as needed, and returning to work in the morning to start the cycle again.

Laura had no choice but to quit her job when her father became reliant on a feeding tube and required 24-hour care.   She says, “Financially, it was extremely strained for me. I just paid the necessities. The hit on my credit score over the past year due to not being able to pay bills will take me years to repair now.”

When Laura’s dad passed away, her ailing mother’s monthly income was significantly reduced, so hiring a caregiver or moving to assisted living was not an option. “Once again the decision was made,” says Laura, referring to the need to devote herself fully to her mother’s care. After several more months, her mother, too, passed away.

When she was forced to quit her job to care for her parents, Laura applied for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. Laura lives in a state—Arizona—with UI rules that recognize family reasons as valid for voluntarily quitting a job; this means that someone who quits to care for a family member should not be automatically disqualified for UI on this basis. However, when she applied for UI, she says, “I answered the questions honestly. I said, yes, I had voluntarily quit. The form asked for an explanation and I wrote out a lengthy explanation.” She received a letter stating that her application had been denied because she had voluntarily quit her job.

Says Laura, “I wasn’t surprised because, you know, that’s what you hear on the street, if you quit you are not eligible.”

Laura’s experience says a lot about the need for better implementation of UI rules, including effective outreach to potential recipients and their employers. And it reinforces the messages we heard during interviews with advocates and agency officials conducted for the new report. An Arizona advocate told us that in her state, quits are almost automatically disqualified, despite exceptions in the rules, including those for caregivers.

It’s not just faulty implementation of state rules that makes UI inaccessible for far too many caregivers. In many places, state rules themselves create serious obstacles. In most states, workers must be seeking full-time employment (unless they were previously working part-time) in order to qualify for benefits—a requirement that is difficult to meet for those who continue to provide some care. The full-time rule means there is often a significant lag time between when a worker leaves her job and when she can become eligible for benefits. Moreover, many states unrealistically expect workers to engage in negotiations with employers to try to arrange for accommodations prior to quitting their jobs—even when they are certain that they have no alternative but to quit.

There are millions of people like Laura in the U.S.—and there will be even more in the years to come, as so many Americans experience the need to care for their aging loved ones. The UI system is one avenue by which we could provide some support for hardworking people who are experiencing some of life’s most difficult periods of time. We need to fix the UI system—and ensure other supports, such as paid family leave—in order to promote productive, healthy, and equitable communities.

Read the report >>