Wyden bill looks to overhaul unemployment benefit tech

The $500 million bill would pay for the Department of Labor to help develop new benefits technology capabilities to share with states and to establish a digital services team to develop and maintain the tech.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore) election night 2016 shutterstock image photo credit: Diego G Diaz

A group of Senate Democrats led by Finance Committee chairman Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced a bill on Wednesday to revamp state unemployment insurance technology by creating a set of shareable technology capabilities for benefits centered on user experience.

"Congress must not allow another recession to come and go without reforming our unemployment insurance system, and that starts with an overhaul of technology," Wyden said in a statement. Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Catherine Cortez Matro (D-Nev.) are cosponsoring the bill.

The pandemic and accompanying surge in claims have laid bare deep problems in current benefits systems that rely on outdated technology. Experts have called on federal agencies to coordinate the provision of benefits as states struggle to effectively deliver benefits.

The new bill would appropriate $500 million for the Department of Labor to create a modular set of technology capacities to modernize unemployment technology. States would choose which pieces, ranging from those focused on claims filing to determining the eligibility of claimants, to use.

Before development or procurement, the bill would require a study to identify current tech needs with accessibility and equity lenses.

Those focuses would extend into the technology itself via terms included in the bill. For example, online claim filing technology would have to be available in any language spoken by at least 1 percent of the people in a stats. The technology would also have to be accessible on a series of devices including cell phones.

The Labor Department would do all of this in part with the help of a new Digital Services team the bill would call on them to create with the $5 million appropriated for the new group.

It would include tech experts, user experience experts, a "technical team leader with experience in human-centered design and modern software development practices" and others.

The team would help develop the new modular capabilities and then assistant in their operation, maintenance and new iterations by working with states. They would also be called on to assist the Labor Department more broadly with in-house technology and procurement needs.

News of the bill was first reported by the Washington Post.