Workers in multiple industries across the United States this summer have been taking to the streets to protect their jobs, wages, and working conditions, with more perhaps on the way. Since there is no way to know if a strike will last a few days, weeks, or months, workers have questions about whether they will be eligible to receive unemployment insurance (UI) if they leave work to go on strike, or because of a strike.
Unfortunately, as with many UI issues, there is no simple answer, because UI programs vary greatly across states and territories.
Unemployment Benefits When Work Stops Due to a Strike
Right now, only workers in two states—New York and New Jersey—are allowed to collect unemployment benefits when they miss work specifically because they are on strike. At the moment, there is also a bill on its way to the Governor’s Office for signature in California that would specifically allow striking workers to qualify for unemployment insurance.
There are several circumstances related to a strike that may qualify a worker for benefits. One of the most common is when an employer that is not struck has to lay off workers as a direct result of a strike at another facility. Most states also allow benefits to workers affected by a strike as long as they are not “participating in the dispute, financing it, or directly interested in it.” For example, a clerical worker employed by a company that is closed due to a strike by assembly workers might be covered. However, in some states, such as Michigan, workers who work for a firm where there is a labor dispute are not eligible for unemployment if they lose work during the strike, even if they are not in the bargaining unit.
In addition, the majority of states provide benefits to workers who can’t work due to a lockout. Generally speaking, a lockout occurs when workers want to resume work, but the employer either refuses to allow them to come back or, in some states, offers them their old positions but with diminished compensation or working conditions that the workers have not agreed to accept.
Striking workers in some states may qualify for UI benefits under that state’s rules on voluntary separation from employment. There are generally two kinds of voluntary separation—“good cause quits,” in UI parlance—that states recognize as still qualifying workers for UI. The first is employer-related quits, such as the employer asking a worker to do something illegal or unusually unsafe. The second category is good personal reasons, such as moving to accompany a spouse whose job has relocated, or to flee domestic violence. Recognizing that employer misconduct is a good cause to separate from employment, some states allow striking workers to get UI benefits if the employer violates the contract or labor or employment law. Finally, workers should know that there may be a lag time between the end of the labor disputes and their ability to claim UI if they lose their jobs for reasons unrelated to the dispute.
Another key issue that striking workers may need to be aware of is how other sources of income may impact their UI benefits. When a worker is collecting unemployment, due to a strike or for other reasons, but receives a small amount of income—whether from a side job or from support to striking workers from their union or others—that worker can still receive part of their UI benefit. How that partial UI is calculated can vary, and can get quite complicated. First, the state typically disregards some part of income before applying partial UI, which is either expressed as a dollar amount, a fraction of the weekly benefit amount, or some combination of the two. For example, in Missouri, the disregard is $20 or 20 percent of the weekly benefit amount, whichever is higher. Workers can then get partial UI payments that bring their income up to a certain maximum amount, but that weekly amount can be offset. The maximum amount a claimant can earn is usually the claimant’s weekly benefit amount, but sometimes it is greater. In Michigan, for example, a worker can earn 1.6 times their weekly benefit amount from employment or other income and still be eligible for partial UI. If a worker is getting paid to be on a strike line, that will likely offset their UI benefit, but strike benefits paid to everyone on strike might not offset UI benefits, though they do in some states. In either case, claimants should be sure to report all earnings to the state agency if they are collecting UI.
There are still many states that do not offer unemployment to striking workers, but there is growing advocacy for passing laws to change that. Beyond New York, New Jersey, and California, legislation has been introduced in Connecticut and Massachusetts to make striking workers eligible for unemployment benefits. Workers do not decide to go on strike lightly; when they do, they should be entitled to unemployment benefits to support their right to engage in concerted activities to protect their jobs, compensation, and working conditions.
Note: The author would like to thank Rick McHugh, Rachael Kohl, Jacob Fallman, and Tony Paris for their assistance with this commentary.