Unemployment: A Broken System

As of June 2020, the United States (U.S.) Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a loss of 36 million jobs due to the economic strain caused by an upsurge in COVID-19 cases. Yet, an undisclosed narrative hides behind the harsh reality that confronts citizens who attempt to apply for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. Successfully filing insurance claims requires navigating an organization riddled with institutionalized obstructions. The UI application process presents challenges involving heavy server traffic on the Department of Economic Security websites, ineffective telephone assistance coupled with excessively long wait times and language barriers for non-native English speakers. 

In April 2020, 36 million blue and white-collar positions were cut, 40% of which constituted families with an annual household income of less than $40,000. One month later, 42 million citizens filed for unemployment (UE) benefits. According to a statistical survey conducted by the Urban Institute in June 2020, only 45% of applicants who completed the process received UI benefits, while 55% reported that filing “was very difficult.” A complicated web of government bureaucracy serves as a blatant disincentive for the most vulnerable population. 

The U.S. Department of Labor offers in-person, online and telephone filing options for the submission of UI applications. However, accessing the benefit platform poses significant monetary hurdles for financially disadvantaged citizens seeking assistance. Moreover, newly enacted social distancing measures discourage potential claimants from completing face-to-face applications. The Economic Policy Institute announced that “for every 10 people who successfully filed for benefits, at least three more tried,” yet were unable to finalize the UI application.

Navigation of the UI filing process poses a substantial barrier for otherwise eligible applicants. Non-native English speakers require special assistance to apply for UE benefits. Grappling with the intricacies of the convoluted system, particularly regarding health care, human services and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) necessitates adequate guidance and insight. 

If states ameliorate the UI process, frustrated filers may become eligible to seek UE compensation. However, individuals are hindered from claiming such incentives due to mandatory state requirements of long unemployment periods ranging from 7 to 28 weeks. Consequently, those who were recently furloughed are deemed ineligible to apply for financial aid. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act enhanced unemployment benefits, yet relieved a small portion of mounting bills caused by the lockdown. A reported 84% of civilians required additional stimulus checks to decrease financial burdens, while 33% stated that the funds failed to adequately cover living expenses for one month.

An uptick in Department of Labor and Employment Security website traffic, combined with a high volume of new applicants, collapsed the online application system in March 2020. From Michigan to Florida, common filing issues included an inability to execute insurance forms via the Web page or by means of telephone exchange. Claimants recounted adjusting sleep schedules to access the UI system outside of the busiest hours of operation. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Labor failed to provide applicants with live representatives to assist those who were inexperienced with the UE claim process. Former airline employee, Tanesha Warren detailed her frustration with finalizing benefits while lamenting that “800 calls to the New York State Department of Labor” preceded claim fulfillment. The UI system is overburdened by the effects of corporate downsizing, closure of government offices and mass layoffs of skilled employees.

The direct and impactful benefits offered by UI provides financial aid to underprivileged families. However, eligibility criteria and a difficult application process dissuades deserving citizens from filing for unemployment compensation. Moreover, non-native English speakers experience difficulty while applying for UE claims due to insufficient technical assistance from the U.S. Department of Labor. The failed UI application system is in dire need of refinement and remodeling to efficiently support the necessitous populace. Subsequent entanglements of government bureaucracy and a flawed system denies citizens of fundamental benefits, thereby increasing socioeconomic disparity within the U.S.

1700 EDTAuthor: Tanzil Fatima, Animation/Score: Madinah Slaise

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