How to Fix Our Floundering Unemployment Systems

We’re the country that invented the personal computer and the smartphone, yet our unemployment insurance systems are overwhelmed by the basic task of accepting claims. How did this happen, and what can we do about it?

To be sure, the surge in unemployment this spring poses an unprecedented challenge. In the past few weeks, more than 22 million people filed initial claims for unemployment insurance. Most states are handling a workload 20 times the normal size as well as they can under the circumstances, but this is likely just the beginning of an oncoming crush. Workers are understandably frustrated. Hundreds of thousands have posted on Facebook or tweeted at their state agencies, many with the same basic question: Why can’t I get through to file my claim?

Many states are struggling because they rely on antiquated mainframe systems which use COBOL, a computer language invented in 1959, when some boomers were still babies. Fewer than half of states have modernized their unemployment benefit systems. Many of those that did made mistakes along the way that compromised the quality of their service. 

Luckily, there are immediate steps states can take to improve access, even with outdated systems. States are already building out systems to provide access to the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for workers who did not previously qualify for regular unemployment benefits. While they’re at it, they can make sure millions of workers aren’t locked out of unemployment altogether.  

First, unemployed workers need 24-7 access to online and mobile services, which not all states provide. We live in a country where you can shop online at any hour of the day. Filing for unemployment shouldn’t be restricted to 9-5 on weekdays.

Second, unemployment websites and applications must be mobile-responsive. More people have mobile phones than desktop or laptop computers, and public access to computers has vanished in an era of social distancing. Low-wage workers and workers of color are particularly likely to rely on their phones for Internet access. While more than 80 percent of white adults report owning a desktop or laptop, fewer than 60 percent of Black and Latinx adults do. States must also allow workers and employers to email in or upload documents from their phones. Believe it or not, some states are still asking workers to fax in documents.

Third, states should update their password reset protocols. In some states, workers must be mailed a new password; in others, staff cannot process claims because they are busy answering phone calls about password resets. Technology exists for states to implement secure password reset protocols that do not require action by the agency, which saves time for everyone. 

Finally, civil rights laws require that states translate their websites and applications into Spanish and other commonly spoken languages. Right now, an unemployed worker with limited English skills may have no choice but to file an application over the phone with an interpreter. With so many seeking help, workers are stuck on hold for hours when they manage to get past a busy signal. It would be more efficient to translate the online materials, and ensure equal access. 

Even if these measures take a number of weeks to implement, the investment will be well worth it. We can’t afford to replicate the mistakes of the past.  

While this crisis has highlighted gaping holes in accessing unemployment, it has also created an opportunity. We can build 21st century unemployment systems nimble enough to handle disasters and designed to meet the needs of customers, which includes both workers and employers. A forthcoming report from The Century Foundation, the National Employment Law Project and Philadelphia Legal Assistance will highlight user-friendly design and implementation methods to help states succeed in technology modernization, based on an in-depth study conducted over the past 18 months.

Many states have lacked the resources to upgrade their technology, but Congress and the president can change that. Federal funding for unemployment system administration has been woefully inadequate. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided $1 billion in emergency grants to states to meet the rapidly escalating need. The next federal bill should provide substantially more resources to shore up and modernize state computer and telephone systems. Investing in modernization will also create business for technology companies facing economic challenges and tap into the creativity and talent of our nation’s software engineers.

Never before have workers so desperately depended on access to unemployment insurance. Let’s use the technological capacity of this country to deliver the help they need during this traumatic time.


Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project. Andrew Stettner is a senior fellow with The Century Foundation.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult