Workers who go on strike generally don’t qualify for unemployment benefits. But two states — New York and New Jersey — are the exception to that rule, and other states could soon join them.
The push to provide unemployment insurance to those who walk off the job in protest is picking up amid what has become known as the “summer of strikes.”
More than 200 strikes involving around 320,000 workers have occurred across the U.S. so far in 2023, compared with 116 strikes and 27,000 workers over the same period in 2021, according to data from the Cornell ILR School Labor Action Tracker. Worker activism rose during the coronavirus pandemic, and a tight labor market has given employees more power to negotiate.
“These are public benefits that should be there for workers when their workplace is so unsatisfactory that they take the extraordinary step to go on strike,” said Michele Evermore, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. “They need support just like any other worker.”
Critics of the aid say it puts employers at a disadvantage during negotiations and encourages workers to go on strike.
Here’s what to know about access to unemployment benefits for striking workers.
New York has offered some form of jobless benefits to striking workers since before the unemployment insurance was even written into federal law, Evermore said.
What’s more, in 2020, state lawmakers dramatically reduced the amount of time an employee has to be on strike before they can begin collecting unemployment (from 7 weeks to 14 days).
Workers on strike in the Empire State can typically collect the benefits for as long as 26 weeks.
The state could require the aid be repaid if a worker’s employer provides them with back pay when the strike is over, according to the New York State Department of Labor.
The department “remains committed to helping to ensure that impacted workers have access to the resources they are entitled to during trying times, including labor strikes,” it said.
Workers on strike in New Jersey may also qualify for unemployment benefits, and lawmakers recently shortened the waiting time for eligibility there, too (to 14 days, down from 30).
“These benefits are crucial to allow individuals going through this process the support they need to continue to take care of themselves and their families during difficult times,” said New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy in an April statement.
Workers in the state can usually collect unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks.
Push picks up in Massachusetts, Connecticut
There is a bill working its way through the Massachusetts Legislature that would offer unemployment benefits to those who have been on strike over a labor dispute for 30 days or more.
Lawmakers in Connecticut also recently pushed to provide jobless benefits to workers on strike, but they have so far been unsuccessful.
“To me, it’s an absurd notion on its face,” Rob Sampson, a Republican state senator in Connecticut, said at a committee hearing earlier this year. “People are voluntarily walking off the job.”
But many workers who go on strike don’t feel they had much other choice, Evermore said.
“Once your shop elects to strike, if you individually decide to break that strike line, you are undermining your self-interest and the interests of your whole union,” she said.
“This is not putting a thumb on the scale in negotiations,” Evermore added. “It is totally in keeping with the goals of unemployment insurance: to keep people who are out of work from desperation.”