Throughout the pandemic, Massachusetts has had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. And, unfortunately for the hundreds of thousands of residents who have to navigate a complicated process to file an unemployment claim each week, the state is also experiencing massive delays in distributing unemployment payments.
These kinds of backlogs have been plaguing unemployment offices in many states. In fact, over $17 billion owed to unemployed workers across the country in January has yet to go out. But while other states have had hiccups or hurdles of their own, that’s no excuse for Massachusetts, which has left some residents without checks since December.
This is an especially alarming problem given that many people are currently relying on unemployment insurance to pay for rent or groceries. And to make matters worse, the state has been coy about the scope of the snag, pointing to issues of fraud as reason for delays while giving residents confusing instructions and misleading information. In order to fix the ongoing problem — a critical step before the next federal relief package adds new pressures on the system — the state must act quickly on two key issues: increasing transparency and improving the antiquated technology that makes filing unemployment claims so difficult.
To be sure, the delay in payments is not strictly Massachusetts’ fault. The federal government’s unreliable and staggered economic response since the pandemic began left state agencies scrambling to account for new regulations on short notice, all while dealing with unprecedented spikes in unemployment claims. When Donald Trump stalled on signing the last relief package in December, for example, states had to notify unemployed workers that their benefits were set to lapse, only to send out new information the following week. The result was a strain on state agencies and confused public messaging.
But that’s why transparency on the part of the state is key to moving forward. The Department of Unemployment Assistance has not been clear with unemployed workers when it comes to why they haven’t been receiving payments, according to reporting by the Globe, which has only compounded people’s confusion. The agency’s employees have been giving a mix of vague reasons for delays, such as software glitches or pending reviews, leaving claimants in the dark about whether they failed to correctly submit their applications. This could be the result of the agency ballooning its call center from 50 employees to over 600, but the issue must be addressed. Being direct with unemployed workers as to why they haven’t received their benefits would help ensure that they submit all the information that the state needs. And being more honest with the expected timing of payments would help people make more informed financial decisions.
The state should also be transparent about the scope of the problem and what the root causes are. As of December 2020, Massachusetts was delivering only 58 percent of checks to claimants deemed eligible within two weeks; nearly 10 percent of eligible unemployed workers didn’t receive checks for over 70 days. That ranks Massachusetts in the bottom half of states when it comes to delivering unemployment wages in a timely manner.
According to a spokesperson at the DUA, the logjam in unemployment payments is exacerbated by issues of fraud. And indeed, the unemployment office was inundated with fraudulent claims last year, resulting in a staggeringly high rate of rejected unemployment filings. But other states that were also targeted by the same sophisticated fraud operation, like Illinois or California, have resumed making payments on time. So if fraud is still the problem, why hasn’t Massachusetts been able to overcome it while other states have?
One underlying issue for the delays, beyond the fraud and high volume of claims, is that the state relies on a poorly engineered website, which has been mired in controversy since it was released by the Deval Patrick administration in 2013. The state had contracted the consulting group Deloitte to create an online unemployment claim system, and Deloitte delivered a website two years late and riddled with glitches. Today, users still can’t fully access the site on mobile devices, limiting its usefulness to those who have access to a desktop or laptop computer — and even then, the website is antiquated and challenging to use.
The long-term solution is creating a new, more streamlined website, which is something that the state is already undertaking. But the DUA should immediately bring in experts to assess the software and offer short-term fixes to make it more user-friendly. The DUA has already released a basic mobile app in several non-English languages so that some people can access UI Online on their phones, which is an encouraging step, but it’s still difficult to use, and the English version still requires a desktop computer.
Every week that passes without on-time unemployment payments results in more hunger, more unpaid bills, and more overdue rent — only deepening the economic downturn for thousands of families. That’s a self-inflicted wound on the part of the state, and, unfortunately, only one of the state’s compounding problems. With one of the slowest vaccine rollouts, highest unemployment rates, and these delays in providing much-needed relief, Massachusetts is beginning to position itself as yet another example of pandemic mismanagement. But it’s not too late to change course.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.