New guidance from the Labor Department calls on states and territories to hunt for any policies creating barriers for people trying to access their unemployment benefits.

New guidance from the Labor Department calls on states and territories to hunt for any policies creating barriers for people trying to access their unemployment benefits. SDI Productions/Getty Images

Labor Department calls on states to reevaluate unemployment benefit accessibility

Access to unemployment has been declining and differs drastically across demographic groups. The Labor Department is urging states and territories to do something about it in new guidance.

States and territories delivering unemployment insurance have new directions from the Labor Department to make sure that everyone entitled to benefits has a meaningful opportunity to get them.

The department issued guidance Thursday laying out requirements and recommendations for the state and territorial agencies that dole out the benefit “to remove long-standing barriers to accessing unemployment insurance programs,” Brent Parton, the department’s acting assistant secretary for employment and training, said in a statement.

“Benefits are by law an individual entitlement,” the new guidance says. “States have an obligation to make sure that eligible individuals can access them.”

The push comes as the program has seen the share of unemployed workers who actually get the jobless aid drop steadily for years. 

In 2022, only about a quarter of unemployed people applied for benefits, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About half of those who didn’t opted out because they didn’t think they were eligible, and others didn’t apply at all because of barriers to do so or because they expected to be on the job again soon. Among those that did apply, slightly over half received the benefit. 

Who gets unemployment benefits also differs among demographic groups — a 2021 report commissioned by the Department of Labor found what the authors called “dramatic disparities between demographic groups, with lower recipiency rates among racial and ethnic minorities, younger workers and less educated workers.”

How states and territories administer the program can aid — or inhibit — access to unemployment benefits among those it's meant to serve, the guidance states, adding that those delivering the program also have a responsibility to make sure that access is equitable across all people.

States already have existing access and equity obligations, including requirements to offer alternatives for online application processes, conduct analyses to see if there are differences in access across demographic groups, abide by accessibility laws and offer translated versions of important documents, the new guidance outlines. The unemployment program is also bound by nondiscrimination laws.

In the latest guidance, the department encourages states to dissect the step-by-step processes of their programs from applications to appeals to hunt for anything creating barriers for people trying to access their benefits. It also recommends that states and territories go to the communities they serve to identify problems and fix them, providing an equitable access framework for states to use in monitoring benefit access.

The department also explicitly spells out that program integrity — which became a big agenda item during the pandemic as administrators worked to bolster defenses against new fraud threats — includes making sure that people filing for unemployment benefits aren’t wrongly denied aid or forced to wait in long delays to get their payments. 

The report comes as states and the Department of Labor finish projects intended to modernize the system using the last of a funding push Congress provided in the American Rescue Plan. Lawmakers cut the authorized funds for the program from $2 billion to $1 billion earlier this year as part of the debt ceiling deal. Some of that work being done with the remaining funding is equity-focused, including plain language and translation projects, according to a recent Department of Labor report from the on the American Rescue Plan Act efforts. 

“People apply for UI on one of the worst days of their lives, and no one should have to deal with an overly burdensome, unfriendly process,” Michele Evermore, senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the former deputy director for policy in the Labor Department's Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization told Nextgov/FCW in a statement. “Doing the things this [guidance] requires to prompt equity will make systems easier for everyone to navigate.”