The U.S. Labor Department is sending its specialized “Tiger Teams” of unemployment experts to another half a dozen states as it expands its most hands-on effort to date to help states shore up their unemployment systems.
Teams, which have gone out to a dozen states since DOL launched the effort last year, are now being deployed to Arizona, Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Oregon in the program’s latest round, Michele Evermore, deputy director for policy at DOL’s new Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization, said in a statement.
The initiative is one of the DOL’s most direct efforts to uncover issues with the unemployment insurance system after an estimated $163 billion in benefits were defrauded from state programs and certain groups struggled to access the aid during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Areas targeted for improvement by the teams in their first dozen states— Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin—included simplifying instructions and system prompts, and bettering “translation, disability access, addressing bottlenecks and improving data,” Evermore said in the statement.
States that agree to implement recommendations from the teams, which typically include subject matter experts in fraud, information technology, equity, and unemployment insurance, can then access federal funding to implement the changes.
The teams are also developing programs to help states fight on-going fraud, “for example, making it easier for states to distinguish an imposter from the individual being impersonated, or recommending fraud-proofing best practices,” Evermore said earlier this month.
Work in Wisconsin
Wisconsin, one of the first states chosen to work with the specialized teams, received more than a dozen recommendations to improve its unemployment insurance system—including simplifying the language used throughout its website and application documents.
Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek described the process of working with the federal team as similar to an audit.
“The Department of Labor was looking at it through like three lenses: they really were looking at it through an access lens; they wanted to make sure that these benefits were accessible to folks in the states; an equity lens, so that we weren’t unintentionally putting up barriers for certain groups of individuals; and, of course, they wanted to do fraud prevention,” Pechacek said in an interview.
One thing Wisconsin lacked, she said, was funding to do additional “plain language translation” for Wisconsin’s unemployment websites and claimant handbooks.
“We really wanted to make our materials as easy to understand as user friendly as possible,” Pechacek said. “We had started on our path, but they’ve really helped to move us forward.”
While the administration of the U.S. unemployment system is federally funded, it’s up to 53 individual state and territorial agencies to process and pay out jobless aid benefits. Every single state struggled with delays when the pandemic pushed millions of workers onto the unemployment safety net, leaving some laid off workers waiting months to get aid.
Congress, in the rush to expand unemployment benefits to nearly any person who couldn’t work due to the coronavirus, eased application rules to get the aid out quickly, contributing to billions of dollars in benefits being lost to fraud.
With the problems of a disjointed unemployment system on full display, Congress tasked the DOL last year with modernizing the system and provided it with $2 billion to improve states’ technology and ensure that more workers could access their state systems.
The DOL announced the Tiger Teams effort in August 2021, just a few weeks before it officially established a new Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization.
Evermore said the teams’ state-by-state work is valuable, because they can take the information gathered from behind-the-scenes in one state and apply it to another state’s system that may be similar, especially when it comes to fraud.
For example, she said, the experts can identify areas where state systems may be non compliant with fraud prevention standards, including ID verification, and provide advice on best practices when using multi-factor authentication.
Of all the team recommendations that have come in so far, Evermore said the most common is “really just making sure states are checking with all of the right databases.”