DC, Virginia awarded millions in federal grants to boost fairness in unemployment benefits

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After the coronavirus pandemic put unprecedented pressure on unemployment programs across the country, researchers have pointed to growing inequalities in who applies for benefits — and how much money is disbursed. The first grants of its kind, including $6.84 million for Virginia and more than $2.28 million for the district, are intended to address these disparities.

“Throughout the pandemic, the Unemployment Insurance system has provided an essential lifeline to millions of workers, but far too many workers have struggled to access benefits quickly,” the U.S. Secretary said at the Labour, Marty Walsh, in a statement. “To become a stronger safety net and economic stabilizer, our unemployment insurance system must serve all workers fairly and equitably.”

More than 49 states and jurisdictions have applied for the equity grants. Labor officials said DC, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Oregon were the first to be selected because their agencies submitted the most complete applications. More than $20.5 million was distributed in the first round, and the other remaining requests will be approved as they go.

“We’ve had to spend a lot of time going back and forth with states to figure out where they think this will actually move the needle and what the need is,” said Michele Evermore, deputy policy director at the Unemployment Office of the Labor Department. Assurance. “Fairness is something we have never measured or imposed.”

The district’s employment services department said it would use its grant to boost communication, improve access in other languages ​​and incorporate a “human-centered design” that would make it easier to navigate in its interfaces. in line. The ministry will also seek to remove “unnecessary or redundant barriers” applicants face during the process.

Evermore said the district also offered to use the funds to expand its data collection to better assess which populations have the most access to benefits based on race, ethnicity and gender, among other things. factors.

DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes said in a statement that the effort will “overall better assist district workers in their ability to support themselves and their families.”

Neither the Virginia Employment Commission nor a spokesperson for Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) responded to requests for comment on how the agency would use its grant.

The grant program, the first of its kind, is a continuation of more than $2 billion in funding allocated to the Department of Labor and made available to US states and jurisdictions through the US bailout.

Last year, the Labor Department awarded $140 million in grants to help states strengthen fraud protections in their unemployment systems.

Evermore said states could use the funds to raise awareness of the programs and improve benefit distribution processes so more people can easily access them. In the district and in Virginia, as in many states, job seekers lamented excruciating waits for payments and confusion about how to access benefits.

During the pandemic, officials and researchers found it was generally more difficult for workers of color to access unemployment benefits, she said. Anecdotally, people with disabilities, literacy issues, or lack of access to technology also have more difficulty navigating programs.

Even as Congress increased the number of workers eligible for benefits, some data showed that a lower percentage of unemployed black workers received benefits compared to white workers at certain times of the pandemic.

Evermore added that some workers who are eligible for unemployment insurance are not eligible because they incorrectly assume they are not eligible or because the messaging has not reached them.

“A lot of the barriers to access are usually much more involuntary,” Evermore said.

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