Feds release two important advisories about claimant access

On Friday, October 2nd, the Department of Labor issued two advisories — officially called program letters — about maintaining claimant’s access to their unemployment benefits.

The first concerns the due process protections claimants have when charged with concealment. In particular, this advisory spells out the requirement that whenever unemployment benefits are denied:

[T]he individual must receive a written copy of that determination and must have the right to appeal the denial. States are not required to conduct a full, formal evidentiary appeal hearing before determining that an individual was overpaid, but they must offer the individual an opportunity to know and rebut the information in fact finding before issuing a decision that the individual is not eligible and was overpaid.

UIPL 01-16 (1 October 2015) at 4. Furthermore, once a claim for unemployment benefits is underway, payment of those benefits cannot be stopped until a determination about the claimant’s eligibility has been issued.

If the state agency cannot make an eligibility determination before the date of a timely payment, the state agency “presumes the claimant’s continued eligibility until it makes a determination otherwise.” Additionally, a state must inform individuals that the pending eligibility issue may affect their entitlement to [unemployment compensation] and may result in an overpayment.

Id. And, in that investigation about the claimant’s continued eligibility for unemployment benefits, the unemployment agency must independently verify any computer match information casting doubt on the claimant’s continued eligibility, notify the claimant about the doubts on his or her continued eligibility, and give the claimant time to respond to the accusation.

States may not make determinations of overpayments and/or fraud using automated systems without the input of agency staff. The individual must also be informed of the information received as a result of the match with the Federal database and given the opportunity to be heard before a determination of an overpayment may be issued.

Id. at 5. This specific statement that fraud determinations CANNOT be based on automated systems seems specifically targeted against the fraud by algorithm process currently taking place in Michigan. The advisory closes with the requirements needed for any fraud notice.

[A] fraud determination notice must be sufficient to allow the individual to know the potential penalties or other consequences of a fraud determination as well as his or her rights with respect to an appeal. The individual must be provided additional information on the appeal process including the right to have representation; to present testimony and other evidence relative to the appeal; to subpoena witnesses and records; and to be apprised of the consequences of failing to attend an appeal if one is requested. Communications must be in plain language and using methods that ensure the communication is most likely to be successful for all populations, including individuals with limited English proficiency.

Id. at 6. Given the push in Wisconsin for pursuing concealment charges against claimants for claim-filing mistakes, this advisory applies with equal force to Wisconsin.

The second advisory concerns preventing program discrimination because of age, national origin, or language proficiency and making sure that new, computerized filing and notification procedures are as user-friendly as possible. This lengthy memorandum begins by spelling out the legal requirements for open access to claims information.

[S]tate UI agencies must ensure that use of new technologies and systems for administering UI programs and providing services do not create barriers (e.g., procedural, technological, or informational) that may prevent individuals from accessing UI benefits, such as by denying them a reasonable opportunity to establish their eligibility. The U.S. Department of Labor (Department) has determined that “access” for purposes of conforming to Section 303(a)(1) of the [Social Security Act] means individuals’ ability to complete, submit, and obtain information about their initial and continued claims, appeals, reemployment services, and any other information, program functions, or services available for all claimants.

* * *

Thus, while states may offer claimants a variety of methods to receive information, the content of a written determination, whether it is a letter mailed to the claimant or provided in an electronic medium, must comply with the requirements in the Standard for Claim Determination specified [in Employment Security Manual, Part V, Section 6013.C.1.c.].

UIPL 02-16 (1 October 2015) at 3-4.

Electronic-only communication requirements may well run afoul of these non-discrimination requirements.

The nondiscrimination laws that apply to state UI agencies prohibit discrimination based on both disparate treatment — intentionally treating members of protected groups differently based on their protected status — and disparate impact — the use of policies or practices that are neutral on their face, but have a disproportionate impact on members of some protected groups. In addition, as detailed below, regulations implementing these laws prohibit states from establishing policies or procedures that, while not directly barring access to benefits or services for individuals who have disabilities and/or are [Limited English Proficient], indirectly prevent or limit access. The use of a website and web-based technology as the sole or primary way for individuals to obtain information about UI benefits or to file UI claims may have the effect of denying or limiting access to members of protected groups in violation of Federal nondiscrimination law.

* * *

States may offer individuals the option of receiving the information, services, etc., discussed in this guidance via electronic methods, but may not require that individuals communicate only through electronic means. Such policies unduly restrict program access, as not all individuals have the ability or capacity to communicate electronically.

Id. at 4-5. This advisory then goes into detail about what these non-discrimination requirements mean and describes the numerous steps that state agencies need to take. Of particular note are the following requirements and objectives:

Use of free, web-based translation services (also known as machine translation software) is not sufficient to ensure that the translation is appropriate and conveys the same meaning as the English version. Information about effective translation resources may be found at: [Lost in Translation.]

* * *

State UI agencies should also ensure that web-based claims filing systems also maintain a system for receiving and addressing complaints from limited English proficient persons and persons with a disability. This includes, but is not limited to, providing in-language notice regarding how to file an online complaint about delayed or denied service resulting from language barriers.

* * *

States may promote on-line filing as a primary method of filing UI claims, but they may not have policies and operational practices that make on-line filing the exclusive method of filing and certifying UI claims. As with persons with disabilities or those with [Limited English Proficiency], or older individuals, states must offer an alternative option for accessing information and benefits, such as by telephone and/or in person, in a manner that ensures equal access for persons unable to access or use a web-based system in order to avoid disparate impact on other protected groups. Further, states must broadly and conspicuously disseminate information about alternative access options in ways that ensure that people who may need to use such options are aware of the options. State UI agencies must ensure that use of new technologies and systems for administering UI programs and providing services do not create barriers (e.g., procedural, technological, or informational) that may prevent individuals from accessing UI benefits, such as by denying them a reasonable opportunity to establish their eligibility.

* * *

State UI agencies must also take reasonable steps to ensure that, if technology or other issues discussed in this UIPL interfere with claimants’ access, they have established alternative methods of access, such as telephonic and/or in-person options. The alternative access points must be communicated clearly in a manner that reaches the population that may need to use them. The processes the state UI agency uses to offer alternative methods of access must be documented in the agency’s policy documents and operating procedures. In addition, a state must train UI and American Job Center staff on the alternative methods of access to ensure that claimants and others who experience challenges are properly directed to alternative access options so that they may be served in a timely manner. Excessive delays experienced by potential claimants as they are referred to alternative access methods can result in a denial of access to services, in conflict with Federal UI law and nondiscrimination law requirements.

* * *

Action Required. State Administrators must:

  1. Ensure that processes exist or are implemented to provide all claimants access to UI benefits as discussed in this UIPL;
  2. Disseminate this guidance to appropriate state agency staff, including the state’s [Equal Opportunity] Officer;
  3. Ensure that state [Equal Opportunity] Officers are involved early in all appropriate information technology modernization and business process reengineering plans to promote the full integration of equal opportunity requirements into agency technology plans; and
  4. Work with state [Equal Opportunity] Officers to evaluate the avenues available to the public to participate in the UI process to help ensure access to everyone including individuals with disabilities and [Limited English Proficient] individuals.

Id. at 9, 10, 12, 13, and 14.

The recent developments in Florida and the push in Wisconsin for similar obstacles to filing unemployment claims have been going on for some time now. See, e.g., the posts about job searches changes and waivers. These advisories, however, demonstrate for the first time that federal authorities are pushing back. Stay tuned to see what happens next. The National Employment Law Project has declared: “By staking out a strong enforcement position in support of fairness and accessibility, we believe that the Department [of Labor] has taken a critical first step toward ensuring that unemployment insurance will be there when America’s workers need it, no matter who you are or where you live.”

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