GAO Report Finds Continued Customer Service Problems in Accessing Jobless Aid

Findings Suggest States Are Unprepared for Next Downturn, Say Advocates

Washington, DC—In a study released this morning, the Government Accountability Office reports that states continue to have difficulty providing unemployed workers with consistent high-quality customer service that ensures timely payment of unemployment benefits.

“The GAO’s findings reinforce what we’ve known for some time, which is that the unemployment insurance infrastructure is woefully ill-prepared to handle even the routine volume of claims generated in good times—not to mention the huge volume of claims when the next recession hits,” said Rebecca Dixon, deputy program director with the National Employment Law Project.

Despite declining claims loads, states continue to face numerous problems processing claims, including long wait times, abandoned calls, dropped calls, blocked calls, backlogged claims, and deficient language and translation services, according to the GAO study, which was based on a 50-state survey, focus groups, and interviews.

In a 2013 report, Federal Neglect Leaves State Unemployment Systems in a State of Disrepair, NELP documented many of the same challenges facing unemployment insurance claimants during the recession and its immediate aftermath, as rising claims were shifted to call centers, automated phone menus, and web-based filing systems. Those problems persist despite today’s decreasing claims numbers.

Participants in six focus groups conducted in California, New York, and Texas reported being put on hold for 20 minutes to two hours, and even four hours in one state, according to the GAO report. Focus group participants reported challenges in navigating the automated phone system, such as long, complex menus; no options to correct mistakes; and reaching a dead end in the menu tree. In addition, participants reported sometimes being unable to reach a representative at all.

The GAO’s survey of state UI programs confirmed that these issues were not limited to the three states where focus groups were conducted. Eighteen states reported at least some difficulty with call-handling times. Thirteen states reported problems with abandoned calls, while eight states reported malfunctions of the automated phone system that led to dropped calls. Beyond the phone system issues, the survey found that 16 states had also experienced claims-processing delays or backlogs, and advocates reported major barriers to benefits for the growing numbers of workers who don’t speak English as their primary language.

As NELP has documented, persistent federal administrative funding shortfalls have contributed to inadequate state staffing and outdated information technology systems. Indeed, GAO found that more than half of the states reported operating under these constraints. For unemployed workers, these dysfunctions lead to lost or delayed payments just when they need the program most.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Now is the time to rectify these roadblocks to accessing unemployment insurance, not after the next recession hits,” said Dixon. “Congress should prioritize additional funding for staffing and information technology upgrades, and the Department of Labor should adopt new customer service standards regulating phone claims, UI technology, and language access.”


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