Jobless Benefits Vary Widely By State

Today's headlines tell only part of the unemployment story in the United States.

By the latest count from the U.S. Department of Labor, there are 7.7 million people out of work across the country. Only 41 percent of them qualify for and are collecting unemployment benefits.

What's happening with the rest of them? Some experts say they're facing real inequities.

The Other 59 Percent

The federal government established the idea of unemployment insurance during the Great Depression, but gave the control of the programs over to the states. Since Washington has no say over the matter, requirements for qualifying vary widely from state to state.

"Some states have generous benefits and difficult eligibility standards. Some states have paltry benefits and relatively easy standards. In all states, simply being unemployed isn't enough to qualify for benefits," said Jeffrey Wenger, economist for the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute.

Whether you'll be able to collect money while out of work and looking for a job depends on a number of factors, ranging from how long you had your last job, the number of hours a week you worked, the money you earned to how you lost your job.

As a result, many lower income and part-time workers are being turned down.

Hardest Hit

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have left a scar on nearly every industry in the country. But perhaps the hardest hit is the travel and tourism business. The airlines alone have announced more than 90,000 layoffs.

Marjorie Goldstein of Pittsburgh was among the 11,000 employees let go by US Airways in late September. After 15 years as a stay-at-home mom to three children, Goldstein wanted to do something outside of the house. She completed training as a flight attendant in March, and six months later found herself out of work.

But when she called the Pennsylvania unemployment office, she found out she hadn't worked long enough to qualify for benefits.

Goldstein said she was surprised to learn that after paying into the system for a half-year she was ineligible to collect. "That's what unemployment benefits are for," she said.

Part-time Trouble

Tens of thousands of workers at hotels and restaurant have also lost their jobs because of the downturn in tourism. Many of those workers, such as housekeepers and bus boys, were non-union workers and employed part time.

"The industry has been particularly hard hit. In many states, part-time workers aren't eligible for benefits," said Wenger.

This could mean more trouble ahead. The number of persons who worked part time rose by about 860,000 in September to 4.2 million, according to the Labor Department. The government said most of the increase was among persons whose hours were cut because of the business slowdown caused by the terrorist attacks.

As employers continue to slash jobs, experts said, these now part-time workers would also face difficulty qualifying for benefits in the future.

Time for an Overhaul?

The American work force more and more is made up of part-time and temporary workers. The Economic Policy Institute, which is partly funded by labor organizations, believes the system needs a makeover.

The General Accounting Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, echoes the sentiment. Last year, the GAO recommended to Congress that the requirements be loosened to better reflect that work force, pointing out that the number of part-time and low-wage workers has been on the rise since the welfare system was overhauled in the mid-1990s.

Wenger said changing the eligibility standards would help millions of families in need and the economy at the same time. "Putting cash into the hands of people who would spend it quickly would provide a substantial economic stimulus for a faltering economy," he said.

ABCNEWS' Gena Binkley contributed to this report.

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