Faced with a Congress unwilling to reform the state-federal unemployment insurance system, the Biden administration will try out a new idea: hiring people to help workers deal with the current shoddy system.
Drawing on research that shows higher-educated workers and members of labor unions have been much likelier to apply for and receive benefits, a new pilot program will help with the most basic task: filling out applications for unemployment insurance, something that proved to be an ordeal for millions of Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.
“People who have experience with it are able to get through quicker, answer the questions right and deal with the hurdles,” the U.S. Department of Labor’s Michele Evermore said in an interview. “But people who’ve never been through it before kind of got stuck.”
Evermore serves as policy director for the Labor Department’s newly formed Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization, which in August announced that it would use $2 billion in funding from the American Rescue Plan to help state workforce agencies upgrade their systems, fight fraud and promote access to benefits.
As part of the broader effort, the department will hand out $15 million in grants to five states that want to try out new “UI Navigator” partnerships with labor unions or community organizations that have experience helping workers apply for benefits. The federal government has long tapped “navigators” to help people apply for health insurance subsidies; last year the Small Business Administration rolled out a navigator program to help businesses in underserved communities.
The Labor Department’s new grant may be small, but it says a lot about the shambolic state-federal unemployment system, which is overseen by the federal government but administered in 53 different ways by states and territories across the country. Many still use antiquated computer systems that all but collapsed amid an unprecedented surge in claims at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Workers reported waiting months for benefits, while sophisticated fraudsters took advantage of the outdated IT systems to steal billions of dollars.
In some states, just applying for benefits was so difficult that individuals with good advice on how to deal with a workforce agency became heroes online, such as Vanessa Brito in Florida and Sabrina Hogan in Georgia. Hogan, a 54-year-old former Uber driver, told HuffPost she’s helped more than 12,000 Georgians file unemployment claims and deal with callbacks from the Georgia Department of Labor. She still gets roughly two requests for help per day.
“I feel it’s my civic duty at this point and I will help anyone who reaches out,” Hogan said.
Democrats in Congress would like to see an unemployment system with more uniformity from state to state, one that would disallow Republican legislatures from slashing benefits, as they’ve done over the past decade. But Democrats opted against including unemployment insurance reform as part of their domestic policy agenda last year.
Instead, the Biden administration will try to improve the system at the margins. Helping laid-off workers apply for benefits is about more than improving customer service and making people happy. It’s about macroeconomic policy — reversing a long-term decline in the percentage of unemployed workers receiving benefits and shoring up worker power.
“One of the goals of unemployment insurance, since 1935, is to prevent wage erosion by giving people a reservation wage,” Evermore said, “so that they don’t have to take the first job that comes along when it’s a major cut from from the employment that they’ve had before.”