Beeck Center Staff Testifies Before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Work and Welfare

Below is testimony made to the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Work and Welfare “Unemployment Insurance Reform: Supporting American Workers and Businesses” by Jennifer Phillips, program lead for network collaboration at the Beeck Center’s Digital Benefits Network.

Oral Testimony 

Thank you, Chairman LaHood, Ranking Member Davis, and distinguished members of this subcommittee, for the opportunity to testify today.

It’s my honor to share insights about how state unemployment insurance (UI) agencies are helping historically disenfranchised workers access UI benefits. And how simplifying and improving access for all workers boosts UI system integrity.

I work for the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University and we focus on best-in-class digital service delivery solutions that ensure access to public benefits. Previously, I proudly worked for the Illinois Department of Employment Security as the Assistant Deputy Director for Service Delivery.

Unemployment insurance is an economic first responder program. It safeguards eligible workers from financial crises when they lose a job and helps stabilize the economy. Eligible workers can and should expect that it will work for them when they need it. Michigan’s mission statement says it all: UI should be fast, fair, and fraud-free.

The pandemic claim volume combined with years of declining investment in state technology brutally exposed foundational cracks in aging systems. 

Millions of eligible American workers struggled to obtain UI benefits. Research showed that many were historically disenfranchised workers who were less educated, younger, and from racial and ethnic groups.

Equitable access means that any eligible worker should be able to effectively and efficiently apply and obtain benefits they are entitled to without facing undue burdens or barriers. McKinsey research finds when a person’s experience utilizing state services meets or exceeds expectations, it can boost trust in government, improve morale among civil servants, and lower costs for government agencies.

USDOL has awarded nearly $800 million dollars for ARPA UI Modernization to help achieve three Congressionally mandated mutually reinforcing goals of preventing and detecting fraud, increasing benefit timeliness, and expanding equitable access to UI.

These innovation-focused grants offer an unprecedented opportunity to modernize UI. As a former state UI administrator, I thank you and want you to know that UI leaders across the country are working hard to meet those goals.

State innovation will shine a light on what works and what does not. That plus USDOL’s seven building resiliency recommendations create a roadmap for the reforms most needed. 

In my written testimony, I outlined ten UI access challenges and corresponding solutions USDOL and states are working on and will highlight five now.

In Illinois, we created an acronym for the first three – PLATE which stands for —plain language, accessibility, and translation for equity.

PLATE encourages thinking about claimant diversity—like for someone who reads at the fifth-grade level, or who is blind, or deaf, or whose first language isn’t English.

States like New Jersey took complicated UI correspondence and made it easy to understand, with actionable steps for claimants. They also created how-to toolkits to share with other states.

Fourth, it is critically important to develop technology solutions that build in iterative feedback loops via user research – build, test, improve, launch in phases, keep improving. Illinois plans to update its UI application and online claimant portal. To better understand user pain points, Illinois partnered with USDOL to analyze over 270,000 claimant survey responses, conduct live claim filing observational research, and analyze data about where people abandon the application process. States are improving their ability to conduct customer experience and usability research, ensuring new technology works for unemployed workers, especially those historically marginalized.

Lastly, another key challenge is website navigation and how to apply for UI. States like Michigan, working with human-centered design nonprofit Civilla, created a step-by-step claimant roadmap on their website, offer weekly claim filing help sessions, and launched Community Connect, with regional liaisons to help when needed. State outreach efforts that increase human interaction also help confirm claimants are legitimate filers.

States have pivoted from the crush of the pandemic to pioneering and implementing innovative solutions that increase equitable access to UI. My written testimony has more than 25 examples of state ingenuity that improve access and can also drive down non-fraud improper payments. To keep this momentum, states need flexibility and continued funding. They need ways to accelerate the work by collaborating. And organizations like the Beeck Center and others, supported by private philanthropy, help convene, connect, and catalyze this change. States need Congress to champion additional technology modernization and customer experience improvements to restore faith that when an eligible American worker loses their job, UI will work for them. Fast, fair, and fraud-free.

It was an honor to testify to the Committee and I welcome your questions. Thank you.

Read Full Written Statement