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Jobless Insurance System Strained

AS recession rains down on the economy, the leaks in America's unemployment insurance system are becoming all too evident. For example:

Michigan has so many people applying for unemployment benefits that they typically wait five to six weeks to get their first check.

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Fewer Americans receive benefits. For five of the last seven years, the percentage of jobless getting benefits stood at record lows - at or below 34 percent. The rate climbed to 37 percent in 1990. That, too, is a record low for a recession year, when the rate typically climbs.

Connecticut's unemployment trust fund is so strapped for cash that it will have to borrow money from the federal government to pay claims. Massachusetts is expected to follow suit soon. The Labor Department estimates three other states and the District of Columbia will reach into the federal till by the fall of 1992.

Claims are up even here in Pittsburgh, where the recession is only nibbling around the edges of the economy. ``There's a substantial increase in the number of calls,'' says Barney Oursler, coordinator of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, a nonprofit organization near Pittsburgh.

Overall, unemployed Americans are walking into this recession with far less protection than in previous recessions.

``At no time in the 35 years for which data are available has the nation entered a recession with as weak an unemployment insurance safety net as we now have,'' conclude Isaac Shapiro and Robert Greenstein in a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

There are several reasons for this. States have tightened their standards on who is eligible to get benefits. Many states borrowed so much to pay claims in the last recession that they had to make reforms. The federal government has been slow to increase funds for administering the programs.

The work force itself has changed. It is less unionized, more flexible. A retail clerk earning $5 an hour is less likely to wind up unemployed for long periods than a union employee who made $14 an hour. There are more temporary and part-time workers today, who are often ineligible for benefits.

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Congress is moving to remedy the situation - although it is not clear the recession will last long enough to force major reform.

The House subcommittee on Labor, Health, and Human Services has marked up a bill to give the states an extra $200 million for the administration of unemployment insurance. This will help states add staff to handle the surge in unemployment claims.

Michigan, for example, is handling 270 percent more claims now than it did in November, says Tom West of the Michigan Employment Security Commission. At the start of the 1980s, the state had 6,000 employees and 83 branch offices to handle these claims. Today, it has only 2,400 workers and 54 branch offices, yet its workload is nearly as large. The result is one of the worst delays in the country.

Laid-off workers can qualify for up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. As early as next week, Michigan could reach the unemployment level that will trigger up to 13 extra weeks of unemployment benefits to its jobless. Michigan would be the fourth such state to reach its trigger point for extended benefits. The Labor Department expects 10 states in all could reach that point.

Some policymakers in Congress worry that too many jobless people are falling through the cracks. They want to make fundamental reforms in the system.

Next week, Rep. Thomas Downey (D) of New York expects to introduce a bill that would make it easier for the unemployed to qualify for benefits.

The bill would force states to relax some of their restrictions on who qualifies for benefits. It would also make it easier for workers to receive extended benefits - using a state's total unemployment rate instead of the current arcane formula as a trigger.

The bill would also guarantee each state a certain amount for administering benefits, which would increase automatically when unemployment surged.

Currently, employers pay for unemployment benefits through a 0.8 percent federal tax on the first $7,000 earned by each of their workers. To pay for his changes, Representative Downey wants to increase this taxable wage base in exchange for lowering the tax rate.

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