Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the number of initial claims workers submitted in each of the last two weeks for new unemployment insurance (UI) benefits dwarfed every other week-to-week increase in the history of the U.S.

Record Numbers of Unemployment Insurance Claims, Workers Experiencing Major Delays

Across the country, state unemployment insurance agencies are processing a record number of new claims from workers who have lost their jobs. While processing these unprecedented claims under the regular UI system, states are also tasked with implementing massive new unemployment insurance programs passed by Congress in response to coronavirus, including the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program (PUA).

At the same time, state unemployment systems are underfunded—many with very outdated processing systems that frustrate workers and delay benefits. The unprecedented layoffs in this moment only add to that stress on state UI systems—and workers around the country are experiencing significant delays in getting their claims processed and in receiving the benefits they need to live.

The billion dollars that Congress appropriated in the Families First Act to help states manage this wave of mass unemployment was a welcome and appropriate level of relief when it was passed, but now is going to be insufficient. It’s clear now that the massive scale of layoffs will exceed even what experts initially estimated at the time the legislation was passed. Now, at the minimum, states are going to need at least fifty to sixty times that amount to continue to process claims as quickly as possible to ensure unemployed workers get the relief they need. Workers and advocates should continue to push for additional funds from Congress for this purpose.

How States Can Use Existing Laws to Help Ensure Workers Receive Aid Sooner

But money alone is also not enough to handle this crush of claims. States should advise or require employers to immediately provide information to state agencies about layoffs, in order to speed the process of verifying workers’ claims. The federal Worker Training and Retraining Notice (WARN) Act, or state level WARN acts could be modified to ensure this.

Although advance notice is not required when there are unforeseen circumstances, WARN generally applies during a disaster. Even if advance notice of layoffs cannot be provided, all notice requirements to workers and state agencies are not all waived. Although federal guidelines do not require notification to state agencies about qualifications, they do require notice to workers in a disaster, setting a precedent for forward looking notifications to be provided in a disaster:

“When a plant closure or a mass layoff is the direct result of a natural disaster such as a hurricane, flood, earthquake, drought, storm, tidal wave, or similar events caused by nature, employers are obligated to give as much notice as possible, even if the notice comes after a disaster. To comply with the law, the employer may send notice to the employee’s last known address, even if their homes are destroyed. This would indicate good faith. The regulations recognize that the available information may be limited.”

Some state mini-WARN acts provide for employer coordination with the state unemployment insurance agency and that information about unemployment insurance be provided to workers during a mass layoff, whether it is temporary or not. Model language employers must provide to workers in New York is particularly helpful in understanding the coordination between employers, workers, and state agencies:

“You are also hereby notified that, as a result of your employment loss, you may be eligible to receive job retraining, re-employment services, or other assistance with obtaining new employment from the New York State Department of Labor or its workforce partners upon your termination. You may also be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits after your last day of employment. Whenever possible, the New York State Department of Labor will contact your employer to arrange to provide additional information regarding these benefits and services to you through workshops, interviews, and other activities that will be scheduled prior to the time your employment ends. If your job has already ended, you can also access reemployment information and apply for unemployment insurance benefits on the Department’s website or you may use the contact information provided on the website or visit one of the Department’s local offices for further information and assistance.”

New Jersey’s WARN Act requires the state to form rapid response teams to help workers in the case of a mass layoff. These teams can “seek to facilitate cooperation between representatives of the management and employees at the establishment to most effectively utilize available public programs which may make it possible to delay or prevent the transfer or termination of operations or to assist employees if it is not possible to prevent the termination.” While those response teams may be overwhelmed due to this COVID crisis, it does provide a precedent for a system in which states receive information quickly and directly about individuals subject to mass layoffs who may qualify for benefits.

While neither the federal WARN Act or any state mini-WARN Acts could be interpreted to require advance notice from employers of COVID-19 related layoffs due to the “unforeseen circumstances” exceptions, changes to the federal WARN Act or state legislation resembling the WARN Act could require employers to immediately provide information about laid off workers to the state UI agency. This could help agencies more quickly determine whether workers are eligible for unemployment benefits. States could even take it a step further and require that employers complete as much of the application as possible on workers’ behalf.

How States Can Help Ensure Independent Contractors and Self-Employed Workers Receive Benefits Faster

Finally, to streamline applications for independent contractors and self-employed workers, states should take action to ensure that state revenue agencies are able to share workers’ 1099 tax filing information with state agencies that request it. Some of the workers who will most need benefits are people classified as independent contractors, and who may not have an electronic version of their tax form to speed up processing.

Implementing both these federal funding and state or federal process improvements will help workers during this crisis and beyond—as well as long term, structural reform to  unemployment insurance systems.

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