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Senate bill proposes shared tools, services for state unemployment programs

The pandemic and accompanying surge in claims have laid bare deep problems in current benefits systems that rely on outdated technology. When unemployment rose after the pandemic hit, states struggled to effectively deliver benefits.

Now a group of Senate Democrats have introduced a bill to revamp state unemployment insurance systems by creating a set of shareable technology capabilities that focus on user experience.

"Congress must not allow another recession to come and go without reforming our unemployment insurance system, and that starts with an overhaul of technology," bill sponsor Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement.

The Unemployment Insurance Technology Modernization Act of 2021 would appropriate $500 million for the Department of Labor to create technology capacities that would “provide States with modular, open system technology capabilities and shared services to administer their unemployment compensation programs.” States would choose which pieces, ranging from those focused on claims filing to determining the eligibility of claimants, to use.

States would be allowed to use the centralized federal technology capabilities for storage, exposure and exchange of data related to administering their unemployment programs, while still retaining possession of their data. They may also continue to use their own systems, provided that the state enables machine-to-machine interfaces to communicate to the federal government and other states.  

Before development or procurement, the bill would require a study to identify current tech needs with accessibility and equity lenses.

Those focuses would extend into the technology itself via terms included in the bill. For example, online claim filing technology would have to be available in any language spoken by at least 1% of the people in any state. The technology would also have to be accessible on a series of devices including cell phones.

The Labor Department would do all of this in part with the help of a new Digital Services team the bill stand up. It would include tech experts, user experience experts, a "technical team leader with experience in human-centered design and modern software development practices" and others.

The team would help develop the new modular capabilities and then assistant in their operation, maintenance and new iterations by working with states. They would also be called on to assist the Labor Department more broadly with in-house technology and procurement needs.

News of the bill was first reported by the Washington Post.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Natalie Alms is a staff writer at FCW covering the federal workforce. She is a recent graduate of Wake Forest University and has written for the Salisbury (N.C.) Post. Connect with Natalie on Twitter at @AlmsNatalie.

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