July 22,2020

Wyden Introduces Legislation to Bring State Unemployment Insurance Technology Into 21st Century

Washington, D.C. – Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., today introduced legislation to incentivize states to upgrade their outdated unemployment insurance infrastructure.

The Unemployment Insurance Technology and Accessibility Act would create a $500 million Department of Labor grant program to provide states with funds to upgrade their technology. States that do not meet accessibility criteria within two years would be required to repay the grant. 

The bill is cosponsored by Senators Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., and Jacky Rosen, D-Nev.    

“States have neglected their unemployment insurance infrastructure for decades, causing stressful and unnecessary delays for workers. There’s no excuse for workers waiting in line for hours outside state unemployment offices because they can’t access websites,” Wyden said. “While Congress has provided funds to help states administer supercharged unemployment benefits, more is needed. My bill would provide critical funding and ensure states develop accessible, user-friendly online filing systems.” 

Many states run their systems on COBOL, a 60-year-old programming language, which slows claims processing and makes the system hard to maintain. Upgrading this outdated technology is necessary not only for efficient administration, but also to ensure unemployed workers are able to access benefits. 

For example, some state application systems aren’t accessible on mobile devices, even though many workers only have access to mobile devices. Lack of a mobile-friendly application disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic workers, who are more likely to rely on mobile devices to access the internet. While 82% of white Americans own a desktop or laptop computer, only 58% of Black Americans and 57% of Hispanic Americans do. Similarly, only 12% of white Americans have internet access through a smartphone only, while 23% of Black Americans and 25% of Hispanic Americans rely exclusively on smartphones for internet access.    

Under the bill, states would need to meet the following requirements: 

  • Ensure that the process of filing initial and continuing claims for unemployment compensation can be readily understood and accomplished by the vast majority of claimants, including individuals with limited English proficiency, disabled individuals, older individuals, and individuals with literacy challenges.
  • Develop an online-filing system that’s available in any language spoken by more than 1% of the state’s population. Translations must be completed by human translators rather than translation software.
  • Develop an online filing system that’s accessible and optimized for both desktop computers and mobile devices. Any features of the system (such as the ability to upload documentation) that are available in the desktop version of the online claim-filing system must also be available in the mobile version.
  • Allow for electronic submission of documentation required to support a claim.
  • Develop an online filing system that’s available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and has an automated password reset function that can be completed online.
  • States must also allow claims to be filed either by phone or in person, in addition to an online filing system. 

The bill text is available here.