Promising Practices to Increase Equitable Access in Unemployment Insurance


The pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in state unemployment insurance (UI) systems, including fraud, delayed benefits, and inequities in access. In 2021, Congress responded with a $2 billion appropriation in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), reduced to $1 billion in May 2023. The appropriation focused on three intersecting objectives: equitable access to UI, payment timeliness, and improved fraud detection and prevention. DOL created several funding initiatives aimed at modernizing UI systems with an intentional focus on equitable access to UI.

The focus on equity reflected existing research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) that showed that many people were not aware that the UI system existed or applied to them and hence did not apply for benefits. In addition, DOL’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA) sponsored a series of research projects that suggested that many of those who do not know they should have access to benefits are from the same demographic groups that are less likely to report receiving benefits, disparities which continued during the pandemic.

The ARPA appropriation has been committed and state implementation is underway. This piece highlights the promising practices adopted at DOL and by state workforce agencies to improve equitable access to UI. It builds on prior Beeck Center research on Promising Practices in State Unemployment Insurance Digital Service Delivery.

Top Equity Practices States are Focusing On

DOL approved state equity grants (more on these grants below) and, in 2023, partnered with the American Institute for Research (AIR) to conduct a quantitative analysis of common projects and priorities addressing equitable access to UI. The seven most common topics included:

  • Process improvements to enhance equitable access;
  • Improved claimant communications;
  • Translation services;
  • Access to better data analysis to understand where inequities exist;
  • Using plain language in communications;
  • Improving staff capacity to reduce backlog; and
  • Mapping the customer journey through the state’s UI IT system.

Federal Leadership

Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization (OUIM) Initiatives

Grantmaking and Guidance

The ARPA appropriation motivated DOL to create and staff a new office responsible for strategic vision, implementation guidance, and oversight and management of the funding to states. The Office of UI Modernization (OUIM) developed a series of grant initiatives that worked to identify the challenges and identify areas for “improvements in equity and accessibility, timeliness and backlog processing, and fraud prevention and detection.”

The grant opportunities included:

  1. Fraud and Integrity: DOL made grants available in two tranches, first in 2021, providing $140 million for state fraud prevention (of which $133.86 million was ultimately awarded to 50 state-level programs), and later in 2023, providing an additional $93 million for program integrity, focused on efforts to prevent fraud by bolstering ID verification methods and addressing overpayment recovery strategies.
  2. Equity: Grants, which offered an initial $260 million (of which $219.3 million was awarded to 46 state-level programs) focused on efforts to improve equity by implementing solutions aimed at eliminating application barriers, reducing backlogs, improving timeliness, and improving fraud prevention. 
  3. Tiger Teams: Grants, first made available in 2021, providing $37.8 million awarded to 36 states, followed by $76 million made available in 2023, to enable the creation of multi-disciplinary Tiger Teams that were tasked with better understanding the causes of pandemic-era failures in state UI systems and recommend solutions.
  4. Navigator: $18 million in competitive navigator grants to help seven state agencies work with community-based organizations (CBOs) to reach potential UI claimants through existing trusted organizations. 
  5. IT Modernization: Grants, made available in 2023, providing $204 million for 19 states to implement their IT modernization plans based on what was learned under the previous grant programs.
  6. UI Modernization: The Open UI Initiative (OUII), which aims to change how states build and buy UI technology by encouraging modular UI development, creating incentives to drive innovation, and providing states more flexibility around UI technology.

Equity-focused policy guidance included:

  1. An explanation about what efforts to increase equity should accomplish, such as stating that “access” means being able to use the system “without facing undue burdens or barriers;”
  2. The release of the UI equitable access toolkit; and 
  3. A UI equity training for UI staff that was developed in partnership with the National Association of State Workforce Agencies (NASWA).

State Leadership and Implementation

State leaders and agency teams have used the opportunity presented by the ARPA grants to identify and begin to tackle issues faced by claimants. There are several promising practices that have already been replicated across states.

Ensuring Accessible, Multilingual Communications

The Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DOLIR) received an equity grant with a focus on improving its communications with applicants in Spanish across multiple touchpoints including the online portal (known as UInteract), mailed communications and emails, and the automated phone system. Using the resources provided by the grant, DOLIR is in the process of translating Spanish language materials across channels and will soon begin rolling out those changes to the community. 

DOLIR also learned that many applicants struggled with receiving communications in the existing forms but could receive text (SMS) messages. Taking convenience, security, and fraud into account, Missouri created an SMS system that informs applicants of an action on their application but does not include sensitive information or links in the message. Instead, it directs the applicant to login to UInteract.

DOLIR is now working on a series of how-to videos in both English (available for the last three years) and Spanish to make users aware of what an applicant can expect when applying for UI benefits. These videos cover topics including the basics of applying for UI benefits, when the beneficiary should expect to receive benefits, the technical elements of the weekly process of receiving UI benefits, and how to get in touch with the agency.

Optimizing Communications for Understanding and Action 

The Nebraska Department of Labor (NEDOL) used its equity grant to implement a complete overhaul of its claimant communications, including improving the ability of claimants to understand their written communications, increasing the accessibility of their website materials, and providing multilingual translation of communications. Working through the Center for Employment Security Education and Research (CESER) at NASWA, NEDOL identified a vendor—the American Institute for Research (AIR)—to assist with designing a methodology to adopt measurable plain language goals to reduce the time for the first payment to a claimant.

AIR reviewed all available communications examples from NEDOL and assessed the content using tools that analyzed the complexity of the language. For example, an initial review determined that 97 percent of the materials are mailed and averaged 2.3 pages in length. Of those, 93 percent of the materials only contained black and white text, 78 percent included deadlines, and 77 percent contained legal language. Working from this initial set of observations, AIR helped NEDOL redraft form communications to more clearly communicate the topic of the communication and required action. In one example, the heading on a notification was changed from: “Notice of Invalid Appeal Filed” to “UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE BENEFITS” on the first line to let the claimant know what the notification was about and, in colored text on the second line, “Your Appeal is Declined Because You Filed Your Appeal After the Deadline.” 

Designing and Testing for Comprehension

The Nevada Department of Employment Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) also worked with NASWA’s CESER to identify the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) as the contractor for their Tiger Team project. NASWA and BIT helped DETR identify the most important communications to improve; assessed and revised their determination letters and website landing page; and then tested the changes to measure the outcomes.

BIT helped DETR create and test three different versions of their determination letter. Each of the new versions built upon the previous version and added a new facet. The first simplified the language, the second added design touches to the simplified letter, and the third changed the tone of the redesigned and simplified letter. Once the new drafts were created, BIT tested each letter (including the original) with more than 2,000 potential claimants through an online testing system. The revised letters improved comprehension among participants that viewed them by four to five percentage points (~57 percent vs 53 percent), compared to those who viewed the original. This improvement in comprehension could translate to one in 25 fewer calls to the DETR call centers, which received 250,000 calls in 2022. If implemented, this reduction in call volume represents a meaningful improvement to claimants, who will better understand and correctly use the process; call center workers, who will have lower call volume and reduced workload; and the system, which will have quicker processing times and increased timeliness.

DETR and BIT also assessed the usability of the revised Nevada UI website (UINV) by using a tool to track where users clicked when they visited the site. This testing demonstrated that the large number of individual links on the original site made it difficult for users to find the information that they wanted to access. BIT assessed the resulting improvement in usability at around 25 percentage points higher than the previous version.

Leveraging Community Organizations to Increase UI Program’s Reach

The Bureau of Unemployment Compensation (BUC) at the Maine Department of Labor (MDOL) received a navigator grant to partner with five CBOs—the AFL-CIO, Maine Equal Justice, Prosperity Maine, Food & Medicine, and Gateway Community Services—to reach underserved communities, including people new to Maine, those with limited English proficiency and literacy issues, lack of access to the internet, older workers, those with dependent care responsibilities, indigenous communities, and low-income workers. The BUC’s leadership team had a regular line of communication with a designated person at each of the CBOs, and met bi-weekly on day-to-day operations and monthly about policy. CBO partners could assist navigating workforce referrals as they are also a workforce partner and trained to navigate UI questions and assist with job search. The rounded services brought a full scope of labor tools to aid individuals getting back on their career path.

In 2023, for the second time in two years, a group of workers in Maine experienced a mass layoff. In the earlier case in 2021, the layoff was smaller, did not last as long, and the navigator relationship with the relevant CBOs did not exist. MDOL did create a dedicated phone line for response, which was minimally utilized. The second layoff provided an opportunity to see how accessible UI benefits were for the laid off workers in each case and to assess the utility of the CBO relationships. BUC has translated many UI materials and now offers written communications in 10 languages. Laid off workers who speak French, Lingala (from central Africa), Spanish, Somali, Arabic, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Swahili, and Kinyarwanda. Where only phone support was available during the earlier layoff, one of the CBOs—Prosperity Maine—provided a location for 3 MDOL UI staffers to provide in-person support for laid off workers and help them understand the UI benefits available.

Areas of Progress and Future Challenges

State agency leaders have leveraged the ARPA grant programs to learn about improved technology implementation, hire staff with the necessary technical skills, and make changes that have or will improve their performance in measurable ways, all with a focus on increasing equitable access to UI.The modernization stories included reflect the improvements possible when a dedicated agency focuses on modernizing technology in UI systems to improve equity for claimants. DOL awarded many grants to almost every state-level UI system leading to experimentation around what can work in every part of the country. 

The hard work of adopting equity-focused practices like plain language in communications, translating systems into the languages used by their population, and streamlining websites so users can find the resources they need with ease has to be done in each state. Without new flexible funding opportunities for work on equitable access to UI, state leaders will have to find a way to maintain the modernization gains they have achieved and continue to identify and solve the next challenges. Improving claimant communications is a start of an improved claimant experience, but many states still have a complicated and multi-step process to connect the submitted claim to the backend systems for processing and verification. Solving for this will take multi-year efforts, often across the tenure of multiple leaders, and additional federal and state investment. The payoff will be that all eligible unemployed workers can receive the benefits they are eligible for.


Much of the information about these efforts comes from the information reported by representatives of DOL and state workforce agencies in sessions at meetings including the National Association of State Workforce Agencies (NASWA) Summit in September 2023. The author is also indebted to the team at OUIM and in the state agencies discussed for reviewing and providing input on this article.