Phyllis Scozzari quit her $170-a-week job in Michigan, claiming sexual harassment. Her supervisor, she said, would "stare at her body while licking his lips," and would often make lewd comments to her.
Debra Valentic quit her Michigan job for similar reasons. She told the National Commission on Unemployment Compensation that one of her supervisors took to "innocently" touching her bosom, rubbing her knees and making suggestive gestures.
Neither woman was able to get a new job immediately and both applied for unemployment insurance. But the Michigan Employment Security Commission turned both applications down on grounds they had quit voluntarily with good cause. Only after the Women's Justice Center of Detroit intervened and fought the cases two levels higher were the decisions reversed and benefits granted.
As these cases suggest, the federal-state unemployment insurance systems contain traps and pitfalls for the nation's 47 million working women.
Scozzari and Valentic were lucky and ultimately won benefits. But witnesses told the national commission, which is headed by a former secretary of health, education and welfare, Wilbur J. Cohen, that untold thousands of women in states all over the nation are deprived of unemployment compensation after quitting over intolerable sexual harassment, because most state officials simply won't accept this as a valid reason for quitting.
According to Tamara Bavar of the United Auto Workers, women in one survey said they had been penalized by loss of 13 weeks' of benefits because they quit under the following provocations and then couldn't find another job:
"Supervisor wanted to date me and gave me a hard time when I refused."
"Refused to have sex with foreman."
"Slapped on the rear by my boss."
Loss of benefits after quitting for sexual harassment, however, isn't the only way women can lose out under the current unemployment-insurance system, which allows states to set most of their own eligibility rules. Witnesses said women also lose out for these reasons:
Child-bearing and child-rearing and housekeeping duties cause a far larger proportion of women than men to work part-time - about 28 percent compared to about 11 percent. Women also earn less - an average of about $8,700 a year for full-time workers compared with $14,700 for men. Because all state eligibility rules are based on length of work and earnings during some base period before the onset of unemployment, some women fail to meet eligibility criteria because of their intermittent employment or low earnings.
Most states require a person to be available for work full-time in order to be considered unemployed and therefore eligible for benefits if unable to find a job. Women available only part-time may be excluded and lose all benefits.
In 28 states, according to a commission study, the "good cause" for leaving a job that makes you eligible for unemployment benefits must arise from the work itself. Therefore, in many cases where a woman quits her job to take care of a sick child or sick husband, or to join her husband who has found a new job in another area, she loses eligibility even though otherwise meeting all criteria.
Bavar's testimony cited this pathetic example from a 55-year-old factory worker: "My husband was transferred to California. Michigan Employment Security Commission (which would have made any payments if the woman was unable to find work in California) said that I did not have a good reason to leave with my husband.I have lived with my husband for 40 years and I feel that this was a good reason for me to leave my job."
Quitting because of discrimination. Recently the Women's Justice Center had to intervene to obtain benefits for a woman, Carrie Phillips, who quit a civilian job with the Army after charging she had suffered discrimination in promotions, according to Jan Leventer, attorney for the center.
Failure of most state laws to cover the nation's 1.2 million to 1.8 million household workers. Only about 130,000 are now covered. Under federal law, the states are required to provide coverage only to workers of an employer who pays at least $1,000 in wages to household workers (whether he uses one or 20) in a calendar quarter.
Some states used to exclude women from receiving benefits during pregnancy even if they were ready, willing and able to work. A recent Supreme Court decision takes care of this problem legally, but the American Civil Liberties Union testified that, in practice, pregnant women still suffer because of attitudes of administering personnel.
Under existing laws and constitutional rulings, Congress has the power to compel the states to write new rules to solve some of these problems - but the solutions are difficult and could involve billions of dollars. What the commission will recommend to Congress is far from clear. In Pennsylvania, Michigan and California, some of the difficulties for women - who comprise nearly half the labor force - are being solved by state laws, regulations and court rulings.
Wilbur Cohen, in an interview, said the two biggest problems are loss of benefits when a woman quits for sexual harassment or for family needs like taking care of a sick child, and can't find another job afterward. He said benefits shouldn't be taken away where it can be established that sex harassment really did occur or that there were legitimate family needs.
But he said the cost of benefits in sex harassment cases should be charged to the employer only if it was the employer who was doing the harassing. "If it was a fellow employe, not the employer, there should be some sort of statewide pooled funding," Cohen said. "But if it's the employer, he should pay." Cohen said the question of full-time availability for work and other problems are more complex and he hasn't reached any conclusions yet. CAPTION: Picture, WILBUR COHEN...cites sex-harassment offenses