Labor nominee says that unemployment tech needs to be updated

Lawmakers are looking to President Biden's Labor Secretary nominee Marty Walsh for help on modernizing unemployment insurance delivery, worker safety and stimulating growth in STEM jobs.

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Providing federal funding to help states update the antiquated technology used for the distribution of public benefits a "necessary step," said mayor of Boston and Labor Secretary nominee Marty Walsh in his hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions today.

Since the onset of the pandemic, surges in unemployment claims have laid bare the vulnerabilities in the technology used by states to deliver benefits, resulting in slow response times for users trying to claim benefits and higher levels of fraudulent claims,

By October of last year, Maine had to cancel over 100,000 fraudulent initial unemployment claims and weekly certifications, said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) during the hearing.

"What we saw were these criminal enterprises ruthlessly exploiting gaps in systems and states all over the country," she said before asking Walsh about his thoughts on upgrading unemployment insurance systems. "Part of the problem is we have these legacy systems that simply cannot handle increased volumes that are slow to adjust for changing results and that cannot easily catch fraud."

Walsh agreed that the benefits technology states use needs to be updated. He also talked about making the process more user-friendly.

"The unemployment system needs to be brought into the 21st century as far as technology," he said. "We also have to make it easier for workers that are unemployed to access unemployment benefits and easier for workers that are unemployed when they go back to work to be able to let the states know that they're back to work."

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) also honed in on the issue and her eagerness to grow the STEM and cyber workforce.

"Our personnel [in Nevada] had to use outdated technology and without adequate federal government support," she said.

Walsh voiced a willingness to work with Congress to "think about what the commitment is to upgrading the technology system" before talking more broadly about updating federal IT as well.

"I know that this is a priority as well of the president and of the vice president," he said. "We bring all these young people in to work in government and when they get here they laugh at where we are as far as technology is, so maybe we should start listening to some of these young people around us to try to understand."

Other lawmakers also directed the conversation to issues in the federal contracting space.

Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) asked Walsh about wage theft and worker safety violations by federal contractors, saying that she had a bill on the issue. Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) also asked Walsh about prevailing wage regulation for federal contractors.

"Federal contracts that we get out should follow the rules and regulations … whether it's paying fair wages, whether it's respecting the rights of workers, whether it's making sure we have safe work conditions," said Walsh.