Fixing the Unemployment Insurance System So It Works for All

Federal unemployment insurance assistance ended last weekend, leaving an estimated 11 million individuals without the additional pandemic assistance, and 7.5 million workers with no unemployment according to the Century Foundation. In New York alone, 1.6 million residents lost the added unemployment benefits. 

With more people consistently out of work over the past 18 months, the challenges to how Unemployment Insurance is reaching the hardest-hit applicants have been exposed.

Access has been a persistent challenge. Here is a summary of some of the issues:

Individuals could not simply walk into a Department of Labor (DOL) office, because in-person offices were closed. Furthermore, many people who had limited to no WiFi access, with libraries and other facilities closed, could not apply for unemployment online.

For applicants with Limited English Proficiency (LEP), the barriers were more daunting. As a next step, many claimants had to reach out to community organizations like MinKwon, Adhikaar, and Make the Road New York navigate the application process. The DOL eventually translated some parts of the resources into Spanish and a couple of other languages, but advocates and claimants said these documents were often translated poorly.

Applicants faced long delays in getting benefits, wrongful denials, and a lack of explanation regarding why their application was denied or terminated or how they could resolve it. If applicants had any problems or wished to contest their unemployment, workers found it near-impossible to get through by phone. Many had to call repeatedly every day to reach a representative, sometimes for weeks, and if they did get through, they consistently experienced four-hour wait times. These delays were further complicated by limited access to accurate information regarding the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES Act”) and its extensions. For months, the CARES Act application was not translated into Spanish, leaving many people unable to access those benefits.

Many individuals had to wait months to receive their benefits, while others were suddenly wrongfully terminated and event-identified for potential fraud. The economic and psychological tolls of delayed payments incorrectly assessed fraud determinations, and the cessation of benefits due to clerical errors cannot be understated. A lump-sum payment of $6000 is not as effective for a family who is reliant on weekly income.

NCLEJ has been developing a white paper to expose some of the problems that LEP individuals and others have experienced since the beginning of the pandemic. Our goal is to use the paper to advocate for structural shifts and policy changes regarding the operation of the New York State DOL to favor workers, in addition to underscoring the need for more staff training and expanded language access. 

With the end of the COVID-19 pandemic nowhere in sight, and thousands of people still unemployed, we need a system that works for everyone. 

For caregivers, delivery workers, restaurant workers, and so many others, there is more work to do to create a system that does not leave anyone behind.

By Jarron McAllister, Penn Law Fellow