The better the question
How can innovation help turn unemployment into reemployment?
EY aids in revamping an outdated system.
COVID-19 has shed light on existing problems in the unemployment-to-reemployment process across the country. An approach was needed to disburse unemployment funds in an organized fashion, tackle fraud and create a process for reemployment.
To most, this would be a daunting task, but it became a Herculean effort for many state agencies when the unexpected volume of claims poured in beginning in March of 2020. Saddled with legacy IT systems, many state agencies had to contend not only with the volume of claims, but also the tidal wave of questions around unemployment insurance from citizens and employers.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people out of work was 3.5 million in January 2020 and grew to a staggering 14.7 million in late March. The U.S. government quickly moved federal funds to help supplement state agency relief. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) allowed for an additional $600 in unemployment insurance (UI) benefits per week and extended UI payments beyond the traditional 26 weeks. This $2.2 trillion economic rescue package was designed to not only help families, but also small businesses, hospitals and local governments that were heavily impacted.
People out of work14.7 million
in the U.S. at height of COVID-19.
Once funding was in place, the money needed to be distributed to unemployed citizens. According to the U.S. government (pdf), 70 million have filed unemployment claims since March which represents around 40% of the entire workforce. This sheer volume quickly inundated state agency unemployment offices.
But state agencies also had to deal with other issues, including possible fraud, potential audits and getting people back to work.
Overwhelming volume of claims
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3 million people nationwide filed for unemployment in the last week of March compared with 200,000 in one week in February. The last week of March marked the worst week in the history of unemployment filing.
One state was inundated with 120,000 unemployment claims in just eight hours when stay-at-home orders went into effect in March.
Agencies in this state and others were woefully unprepared for this impact for two reasons: technology and people. The state’s unemployment website had not been updated in 20 years, and the state didn’t have the staff to process the number of claims or field the volume of questions from residents.
Many other states are in similar situations. According to the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, 36 of 50 states are in need of a UI systems upgrade, with at least 12 states still running legacy mainframes — older, more custom-built applications written in often obsolete programming languages, making them harder to update and even harder to use. Even states that have recently upgraded their systems were experiencing issues due to the large number of cases that hit all at once.
Fraud issues and auditing
In addition to getting people unemployment money quickly, state agencies also had to defend against fraud. They wanted to ensure the people who needed the money most were actually receiving the benefits so they needed checks and balances and a system for tracking the money. Outdated technology made this challenging for several states. States could also face federal audits to make sure they were properly using the relief money allocated. This meant state agencies needed a system to track where, how and who the funds were going to in order to be prepared for any potential audits.
After tackling issues around unemployment, how do you put citizens back to work? This is challenging when there are 10 million fewer jobs available than before the pandemic. And some industries such as hospitality, movie theaters, caterers and restaurants have been hard hit by the pandemic. Simply finding a citizen a job within the same field is challenging. State agencies needed a strategic and innovative way to put people back to work — perhaps in new sectors. They needed help identifying which industries needed additional workers, figuring out how to retrain citizens for these jobs and connecting potential new hires with local businesses in need. Making this task harder, many unemployment offices are strictly brick-and-mortar and are scattered across each state, making it logistically challenging for citizens, especially those with limited childcare options.
The better the answer
Agency transformation provides needed citizen support
EY helps states by reducing backlog cases, preventing fraud and preparing citizens for new employment.
So how do you quickly fix a long-standing system that varies state to state — and also create long-lasting change? You address the flaws in the process, modernize it and develop a system that can withstand any future economic collapses. Plus, you not only correct problems, but you reinvent the process to make it stronger and easier.
Humans at center: helping newly unemployed Americans get the financial help they need, quickly
Faster claims processing and grant distribution efforts
EY teams have worked with several states to implement technology that helps disseminate CARES Act funding and works through the backlog of cases. For one state agency, EY professionals helped clear unemployment claims using a platform where citizens completed an online request for unemployment through the state website using their email addresses. EY professionals have assisted with state processing of claims for both citizens and employers. This included following up with individuals to obtain information to complete the filed claims. The results included addressing more than 350,000 claim-related issues in 2020.
A director of a state Department of Healthcare and Family Services was even quoted as saying, “Through our relationship with EY, Healthcare and Family Services created a program to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars to our providers in need caused by the pandemic. We worked expeditiously to develop new methodologies to help ensure payments got to the those most impacted, including areas hit hardest by the pandemic.”
By using technology to help enable both citizen inbound and outbound calls paired with EY people knowledgeable in unemployment claims and workforce services, one state has more than doubled its capacity to process claims.
To help prevent fraud, EY teams are working with state agencies to strengthen the user interface management behind the scenes to put risk controls in place. This process will deter fraud and confirm that the funds are appropriately going to those citizens in need.
Technology at speed: automating the unemployment process
To speed up the unemployment process, EY professionals looked at several state agency websites to see where automation could streamline the experience for citizens. EY teams also looked at what other improvements could be made using technology for state agencies beyond the impacts of COVID-19.
Incredibly outdated websites and their user interfaces were a large part of the problem, but updates could often yield quick and dramatic results. For one state agency, within 48 hours, EY teams prioritized the most pressing unemployment application information across three separate websites, simplified the language, added clear instructions, and designed and developed new responsive landing pages to get citizens the information they needed faster and easier. Within only six weeks, EY professionals redesigned 170 disconnected, duplicative individual webpages into 60 templates to streamline the communication of information for the user and improve their ability to navigate the site. They also implemented a virtual agent addressing the most frequent inquiries, which helped answer citizens’ simple questions quickly and allowed live agents to focus on more complex inquiries, reducing wait times, call volume and frustration.
EY teams also used automation to aid in modernizing the unemployment process for several states. EY professionals created a new digital footprint for one state that includes a chatbot that has had almost 200,000 conversations, eliminating many lengthy phone conversations. State employees were also trained to maintain and update the revitalized website so benefits to citizens continue into the future. Now, citizens’ questions are answered faster; they better understand the requirements for unemployment filing; and, with an empathetic tone added to the website, citizens feel that their needs and concerns are being heard.
Innovation at scale: re-inventing how reemployment works
EY modernized the process and used technology to make it easier for citizens to get the help they needed during this time of crisis.
Once EY teams helped state agencies tackle issues around unemployment, the next focus was on how to help them get millions of Americans back to work. Traditionally, state job centers are brick-and-mortar offices, with little to no online presence. They are not easily accessible, can be confusing for job seekers to navigate, and often involve long wait times. For one state, there was even a lengthy survey that needed to be filled out in person before any help could be provided. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, job centers were often closed and the number of people allowed in the buildings at one time was limited.
Federal funding is available to aid in reemployment, but due to a lack of knowledge and complex processes at the state level, only 11% of all citizens take advantage of federal programs like the Workforce Innovations and Opportunities Act (WIOA).
The answer was to digitize the process and build consumer-grade experiences that make it easy for citizens to get the help they need in just a few clicks.
Before our involvement, less than 10% of all unemployed people were engaged in reemployment services due to the lengthy process, and caseworkers spent only 28 percent of their time providing services to citizens.
To do this, EY teams created the Virtual American Job Center currently used in one state, as a platform that citizens can access on their desktops or mobile phones to understand the 40+ services and programs available to help them find a new job. With over 80% of Americans having access to a smartphone, the reach of these programs has expanded significantly. Unlike traditional job centers, it can be accessed 24/7 and provides a single-source platform for all reemployment information.
While technology can’t replace the need for human interaction, the Virtual American Job Center provides a path for citizens to get the initial reemployment help they need to point them in the right direction. Once they have a basic understanding of what steps to take next, they are assigned a caseworker who can further their path to reemployment. EY professionals plan to pilot and then adapt the Virtual American Job Center for other states as well.
“Before our involvement in this state, less than 10% of all unemployed people were engaged in reemployment services due to the lengthy process,” said Burcher-DuPont. “And caseworkers spent only 28 percent of their time providing services to citizens — they can now spend more time helping and less time on administrative tasks.”
The better the world works
Making ‘back to work’ quicker and easier
EY is helping American citizens get unemployment aid and gain reemployment efficiently.
There has always been a disconnect between unemployment and reemployment, but the pandemic has shed light on the cracks within the system. State agencies need help redefining the process and the systems for their citizens to get the help they need. On the unemployment side, this involves developing a streamlined digital approach that makes the process easier for everyone. EY professionals have helped states clear nearly 350,000 claims for Americans to date, updated systems to make them easier to use and removed administrative burdens so state employees can focus on helping people.
On the reemployment side, EY teams are using advanced analytics to help states understand which industries are experiencing labor shortages and how to upskill their citizens for those jobs. This includes offering resume-building, tuition reimbursement and advanced technology to build better state economies for both employees and employers. In the end, innovation is what makes for a better unemployment-to-reemployment experience for all Americans. It can make a painful experience a little easier for all and start to rebuild the economy hard hit by the pandemic.