NELP Applauds Labor Department Directive on States’ Responsibilities to Ensure Access to Jobless Aid

Web-Based Application Systems & Use of New Technologies Must Not Create Barriers to Access

Washington, DC—Following is a statement from Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, in response to the U.S. Department of Labor’s publication of formal directive detailing state obligations to ensure access to the federal-state state unemployment insurance system:

“Unemployment insurance, the primary safety net for out-of-work Americans, is fraying badly. Like most public benefit programs, state unemployment insurance systems have been moving toward greater reliance on web-based technology. While online applications offer the promise of greater convenience, complex systems that are not designed with the needs of the unemployed in mind and are not supported by meaningful customer assistance have the potential to disenfranchise workers who rely on UI to feed their families until they find a new job. In 2013, NELP issued a report, Federal Neglect Leaves State Unemployment Systems in a State of Disrepair, documenting the severe challenges workers face accessing UI benefits in an era of automated phone claims and web-based filing systems in particular.

“In response to this serious challenge, which was compounded by the unprecedented pressures imposed on the UI system by the Great Recession, the U.S. Department of Labor has issued a directive that, for the first time, clarifies that federal unemployment insurance and civil rights laws require meaningful access to the UI system. The directive, entitled State Responsibilities for Ensuring Access to Unemployment Insurance Benefits, specifically details the obligations of the states to ensure ready access to UI benefits for all workers, including specific categories of workers who are at greatest risk of being denied access to benefits based on overly restrictive automated systems. Some of the groups who have been impacted most include workers with limited English proficiency, workers with limited computer fluency, older workers, workers who experience challenges with literacy, and workers with physical or mental disabilities. A critical feature of the Department’s new directive is a clear requirement that states must provide and publicize alternate access options for people who struggle with online claim-filing.

“According to the directive, ‘state UI agencies must ensure that use of new technologies and systems for administering UI programs and providing services do not create barriers (e.g., procedural, technological, or informational) that may prevent individuals from accessing UI benefits….’ NELP applauds the Department of Labor for recognizing the severity of this problem with newly issued directive to states. What is significant about this directive is how clearly the Department underscores that worker access to unemployment insurance is a fundamental right under federal law. Under both the Social Security Act and a range of federal anti-discrimination laws, it is now black-letter law that states are obligated to ensure that eligible individuals can effectively access UI benefits and services and that states must pay serious attention to these obligations as they roll out new automated systems.

“Nowhere are access barriers more evident than in Florida. A recent NELP report examines how a combination of onerous filing rules and poorly implemented technology has combined to make accessing benefits in Florida so difficult that only 12 percent of Florida’s unemployed received benefits in the last year, tied for last nationally with South Carolina.

“By staking out a strong enforcement position in support of fairness and accessibility, we believe that the Department has taken a critical first step toward ensuring that unemployment insurance will be there when America’s workers need it, no matter who you are or where you live.”

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