Alyssa Levitz, a recent Technologist in Residence at U.S. Digital Response

How My Unemployment Experience Fueled A Desire to Help Modernize the Unemployment Insurance Process

As Alyssa Levitz leaves her Technologist in Residence position at U.S. Digital Response, she reflects upon what drove her to volunteer in the first place — and where the journey took her.

As the United States was being hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, I was isolating at home with my family, recently unemployed, and trying to figure out what I wanted to do in a quarter-life-crisis kind of way. That’s when a friend and U.S. Digital Response (USDR) volunteer, Priya Garg, reached out to tell me about USDR’s work supporting governments to deliver critical services to residents through technology. I was inspired by USDR’s drive to help during this time of crisis, and saw an immediate fit with my product management background. Luckily, USDR saw a great fit with me too and I signed up to be a pro-bono technologist.

During my first USDR project, I worked with the Indian Legal Clinic to create polling place finders for Native American Reservations in Arizona. I learned about USDR as an organization and the many different spaces in which we work. As my project with the Indian Legal Clinic wound down — and to the backdrop of my job search — USDR posted its first full time Technologist in Residence position leading the Unemployment Insurance Modernization Program.

I saw this opportunity as the perfect way to leverage my skills in a way that would address people’s basic needs. I thought about my previous work at private tech companies working on products that were higher on the pyramid of needs — or maybe not on a pyramid of needs at all. I went through unemployment in a very privileged way, despite the many times my unemployment benefits were delayed. I had a supportive spouse and family I could rely on if the need should arise. I still felt personally connected to the mission of modernizing and facilitating the unemployment insurance process across the country, and the Technologist in Residence role felt like the perfect opportunity to dedicate myself full time to deeply meaningful work.

Understanding Problems by Connecting One Dot at a Time

My time as USDR’s Unemployment Insurance Technologist in Residence has been very different from what I expected. I thought I’d be working on a classic six-week software project — much like the work I’d done with the Indian Legal Clinic. Instead, I’ve been developing independent research and thought partnerships across the country. I’ve worked with and connected dots around USDR, the various workforce agencies around the country, and various states’ Department of Labor to dig deep and really understand what the various problems are and what solutions we’ll need now and moving forward.

In this way, the Technologist in Residence role offered a unique vantage point to fully understand a national issue splintered across 53 jurisdictions and innumerable residents. During my first month, we looked extensively at the identify theft problem plaguing state workforce agencies, including at the many different vendors in this space and how they fit into the picture. A further opportunity for thought partnership and research was the secondary impacts of identify verification procedures, specifically how it affects people who are less digitally literate or don’t have access to a cell phone. Multi-generational households were another verification issue for many states who flagged multiple unemployment claims from the same address as potentially fraudulent. Meanwhile, we worked with the State of New Jersey to launch an eligibility tool to help workers understand what unemployment benefits and other DOL programs best fit their situation. It’s easy to think some of these problems and opportunities were obvious, but it takes weeks of dedicated research to begin to understand the idiosyncrasies of each state’s unemployment insurance program and the myriad stakeholders. User research has been one of the greatest tools to gain that understanding and share that understanding with our partners. For me, that was the unique opportunity and team to identify issues, jointly troubleshoot solutions, and ultimately support state governments implementing new practices and products to deliver a critical service to people in need.

Resolving My Own Quarter Life Crisis Through Volunteering

Through this work I’ve had the opportunity to connect dots across governments, non profits, corporations, citizens, residents, relatives and a variety of stakeholders whose perspectives were previously siloed or all together unknown. I am extremely thankful to all those government partners who continue their commitment to this mission and helped me get my footing in this space. As my time at USDR winds down I’ve been able to accept a position with the federal Department of Labor working on unemployment insurance. Working from within the federal government will be a new experience for me, but in a resolving-a-quarter-life-crisis kind of way, I’m very excited for the opportunity to make life a little bit easier for the millions of people nationwide who will reach out to unemployment insurance during some of the toughest points in their lives.

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