The unemployment insurance system is intended to provide temporary support to workers when they lose their job, through no fault of their own. Unfortunately, for many workers – especially women, people of color, and those who have faced historic challenges accessing benefits – the pandemic exacerbated delays and lack of access to benefits. For instance, recent research supported by the Department of Labor as part of its Summer Equity Data Challenge found that Black unemployed workers were 30% less likely to receive unemployment benefits compared to white workers throughout the pandemic.
These benefits are critical lifelines for millions of working families, and the Department of Labor is committed to addressing flaws in the UI system to ensure everyone gets the benefits they deserve. Research suggests that a major obstacle to greater equity in UI recipiency is at the benefit application stage: many marginalized or vulnerable workers may not know they are eligible to receive benefits or how to apply.
That’s why we’re excited to announce $15 million in Unemployment Insurance Navigator Grants to help states work with community and worker organizations to improve their UI systems, ensuring all workers have access to unemployment benefits. In creating this grant program, we’re building on the important role that many worker organizations, especially unions, have played both before and during the pandemic in helping unemployed workers access benefits.
What does this mean for your state, and how can states get involved? Here are five facts to know about Unemployment Insurance Navigator Grants:
1. States must partner with community-based organizations to participate in the UI Navigator Program. Community organizations include labor unions or other groups representing workers, colleges or other institutions of higher learning; nonprofits; or public organizations. States are encouraged to partner with American Indian/Native American Tribal governments. Community-based organizations should have relationships in the populations that states are proposing to reach – so that together states and partner organizations can effectively provide information and assistance to unemployed workers who might not otherwise be able to navigate the UI system.
2. States can apply for up to $3 million in funding for a 36-month period. Funding to states will be structured as a cooperative agreement between states and the Department of Labor. In addition to funding, the cooperative agreement also provides technical assistance to states and their community partners – for instance, by helping states to use their UI data to better design and implement navigation activities to reach underserved workers and creating a community of practice among grantees.
3. States and partner organizations will use the funding to conduct outreach, provide training and education, and offer general assistance with the application process. Eligible partners must demonstrate experience working with people in their communities to help workers access UI benefits or other benefits provided through other federal benefit programs. Community partners will regularly report on the barriers and obstacles that they observe to state UI agencies so that partners and UI agencies can work to address those barriers.
4. The UI Navigator Program will enable states to deliver timely benefits to all workers, with emphasis on those who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by poverty and inequality. This includes women; racial and ethnic minorities, including Blacks, Hispanics, American Indian and Native Americans, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Indigenous persons; low-wage workers; individuals with disabilities; members of religious minorities; LGTBQI+ individuals; individuals with limited English proficiency; formerly incarcerated individuals and individuals living in rural areas. By regularly reporting on the barriers that they are observing to greater UI access among these underserved populations, moreover, community partners can help state UI agencies and the Department of Labor better reach all eligible workers.
5. The grants are made possible through the American Rescue Plan Act. ARPA funding enables the Department of Labor to improve equitable access and timeliness of UI benefits, as well as reduce fraud.
Learn more about the department’s other efforts to reform the Unemployment Insurance system, including plans to modernize the UI system, the creation of an office to oversee modernization efforts and the award of funds to detect and combat UI fraud.
Alex Hertel-Fernandez is deputy assistant secretary for research and evaluation in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy.
Michele Evermore is deputy director for policy in the Office of Unemployment Insurance Modernization.