How to fix America's broken unemployment systems
© OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

During the darkest hours of the Great Depression, nationwide unemployment rates topped 20 percent. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment in my home city of Las Vegas hit 30 percent — and kept rising.

Our unemployment system was built for moments like these. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the first national unemployment program in 1935, he knew how unforeseeable crises could lead to layoffs for hard-working people. Unemployment insurance was designed to stabilize our economy and ensure a quicker recovery from hard times. In the decades since, millions of workers have paid into the unemployment system with the confidence that it would be there for them if they needed it.

Even in the early days of the virus, Congress knew that our unemployment system could be a powerful tool to help those facing layoffs. Just weeks after the World Health Organization categorized COVID-19 as a pandemic, lawmakers worked across the aisle to pass federal supplemental unemployment benefits in the CARES Act, as well as $1 billion in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to assist with the administration of unemployment funds. We needed state unemployment systems to quickly adapt to a new stream of funding while coping with an unprecedented volume of applicants. Instead, these overburdened and outdated systems became quickly overwhelmed.

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I will never forget the thousands of panicked calls to my office from Nevadans who were struggling with long wait times and glitches in our state unemployment system. Nevada’s hospitality and tourism industries employ about 30 percent of my district’s workforce, and our regional economy took a hard blow from COVID-19. But this isn’t just a Nevada story. Throughout the pandemic, stories have emerged across the country about technical difficulties with unemployment systems that depended on programming languages from the Eisenhower era.

We all hope the devastation of COVID-19 will be a once-in-a-lifetime event. But the problems with state unemployment systems are unacceptable, and must be fixed now, while national attention remains focused on the issue.

After listening to state officials and speaking with my colleagues in other states who heard similar stories about unemployment challenges, I joined forces with Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocrats seek new ways to expand Medicaid in holdout states Democrats introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for government discrimination Lawmakers rally around cyber legislation following string of attacks MORE (D-Ore.) on a solution. On Monday, March 1, we introduced the Unemployment Insurance Technology Modernization Act (H.R. 1458/S.490), which would improve our unemployment systems and save taxpayer money. Instead of forcing states to spend valuable resources developing their own individual systems, this legislation would invest in a federal technology model that is faster, fairer, and more secure.

Our bill recognizes that communities of color have suffered disproportionately during this pandemic but received less support. While Black workers experienced disproportionate pandemic unemployment, research from ProPublica found that they received unemployment aid at much lower rates. The Unemployment Insurance Technology Modernization Act would require our new unemployment system to address claim bias in automated decisions and incorporate public input about usability.

Finally, this legislation would stop taxpayer dollars from flowing to criminal networks. Recent estimates from the Department of Labor show that more than $60 billion could be stolen from state unemployment systems during the pandemic, largely through identity theft and cyberattacks. These attacks reduce faith in the overall system and provide fodder for those who want to slash unemployment aid. The Unemployment Insurance Technology Modernization Act would secure our systems and stop this theft.

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While we look ahead to the future, we must also make sure that today’s workers have the resources to get back on their feet. This week, I am voting for final passage of President BidenJoe BidenExpanding child tax credit could lift 4 million children out of poverty: analysis Maria Bartiromo defends reporting: 'Keep trashing me, I'll keep telling the truth' The Memo: The center strikes back MORE’s American Rescue Plan, which provides comprehensive COVID-19 relief to workers, families, and small businesses and includes my legislation to extend federal supplemental unemployment payments beyond their current March 14 expiration date. This bill is just one step forward to crush the virus, but it will make a tremendous difference for millions of families.

Today, increasing numbers of Americans are returning to work as the COVID-19 vaccine puts the end of the pandemic in sight. With the mistakes of the last year fresh in our minds, we have a tremendous opportunity to fix our unemployment system and ensure that help is within reach for hard-working Americans who fall on hard times.

Congressman Steven HorsfordSteven Alexander HorsfordWorkers and seniors deserve investments in home care infrastructure Biden unveils plan for racial equity at Tulsa Race Massacre centennial Tulsa marks race massacre centennial as US grapples with racial injustice MORE represents Nevada’s Fourth District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Prior to serving in the House, he led the Culinary Training Academy of Las Vegas, the largest job-training program in the state, and made history as Nevada’s first African American Senate majority leader.