Bill would fund unemployment IT modernization, portable benefits

A bill drafted by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) would establish an emergency portable benefits fund for states to use for unemployed workers and to help modernize their IT systems.

The Emergency Benefits for Independent Workers Program Act would create a $500 million fund at the Department of Labor to be administered to states to pay for modernizing state unemployment insurance systems to support innovative benefits programs for the growing independent workforce who have little access to long-term traditional benefits programs.

“For years, I’ve been sounding alarm bells about how millions of self-employed, gig and contract workers are falling through the holes in our social safety net. Now, the coronavirus crisis has put that grim reality into stark relief,” Warner said. “It’s imperative that Congress act to provide states with the flexibility to experiment with innovative models for assisting these workers.”

Although the CARES Act allowed gig workers, for the first time, access to state-administered unemployment insurance programs, millions of these workers have struggled to access those benefits --  in part due to legacy IT systems that became overwhelmed by the record numbers of unemployment claims.

study released by ITIF on April 15 found that 26 state government unemployment websites failed, and more than 50% of the initial unemployment claims filed in the United States during the week ending April 4 were from people in states with unemployment websites that had crashed.

There's no specific requirement about the kinds of modernization the funds will support, but an aide to Warner pointed out that the Virginia Democrat signed on to a recent letter led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) seeking emergency funding for tech and acquisition experts at the Technology Transformation Services and the U.S. Digital Service to assist states with modernization of legacy systems.

Draft text of the proposed bill is available here.

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