What states must do about Pandemic Unemployment Assistance

Jennifer Pahlka
U.S. Digital Response
9 min readApr 17, 2020


Courtesy of @susan_fedynak, from Instagram

Tens of millions of people are suddenly out of work. Your Lyft driver, your hairdresser, your barista, the waiters at your favorite restaurant, and countless others have lost their sources of income because of the COVID-19 crisis. In moments like this, government must act, and it has, at least, taken the first step. In March, Congress created the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program as a part of the CARES Act, which extends benefits to more people than have ever been eligible before, such as gig workers and self-employed people.

The problem is that states are struggling mightily to deliver PUA. People need this help, and they’re increasingly going to need it fast: nearly 70 percent of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, and 45 percent have nothing saved. At present, only a handful of states are accepting applications and processing payouts for PUA. States need to figure this out at a dramatically faster pace than they’ve had to in the past, where policy changes can take years to get translated into a delivery capacity. We don’t have that time.

There is no silver bullet, but there is a way to accept PUA applications fast, and qualified help is available. It will take courage by leaders in the states to make the right policy decisions in the absence of clear guidance and the technology decisions where the solution isn’t obvious. Neither alone will suffice.

Read ahead for more details, but bottom line:

State governments can reach out to USDR here for help with implementing PUA.

Qualified technologists wanting to help their state can raise their hand here.

Why are PUA applications so hard?

PUA applications are hard in part because no one quite knows what to do. The CARES Act leaves several questions unanswered for implementing PUA at the state level. For example, PUA is meant to cover you only if regular Unemployment Insurance does not, or if you’ve exhausted your UI benefits. Some states are interpreting that to mean that you should apply for UI benefits through the regular system, wait for that program to process and reject your applications, and only at that point apply for PUA. The law doesn’t require a rejection before applying for PUA; it’s just one way to administer the requirement, but it’s a terrible choice for many reasons. (More on why in a minute.)

The law also doesn’t specify how or if applicants should demonstrate the income they were making before the COVID-19 crisis, which could be used to determine what their benefit should be. There is even confusion about when your claim can begin. Are applicants eligible for any lost wages since the day Congress created the PUA program?

There are limits to what you can do with a legacy system

Accepting PUA is also hard because each state runs its own technology and operations infrastructure for administering Unemployment Insurance, and, like many other systems in government, these are dangerously antiquated. Many of them are written in COBOL, a programming language that had its heyday in the 1970s on an IBM AS400 system, which was designed in 1988. While these systems deserve kudos for longevity and stability under normal conditions (and the people who maintain them should be thought of as heroes), they have none of the scalability and flexibility that we now expect of modern applications. For example, the official state website in Kentucky, a state that is actually ahead of the curve because they are already taking PUA applications, is advising residents to ignore the messages they will receive when they apply while they work to update their system.

This is not because anyone in Kentucky is incompetent or uncaring. It’s because it takes a while to update a system built over thirty years ago.

Bringing in ten times more applicants than what these systems normally process, with different eligibility, stresses these systems immensely. While modern systems are built to scale up easily if demand increases, these systems from the 1980s simply cannot. The best COBOL programmers in the world (who are suddenly in very high demand) can help a lot here in stabilizing these systems, but they can’t make these legacy systems suddenly handle the kind of load the COVID-19 lockdown is creating.

Speaking of COBOL, U.S. Digital Response has already staffed two states with volunteer COBOL programmers, and has capacity to assign many more. Please reach out here if you work in government and need some talented, vetted volunteers!

When Unemployment Insurance systems were built, you couldn’t apply online because the internet was still in its infancy. Over the years, states have created websites that allow people to apply for the benefit from a browser. The data from their application is passed into legacy systems for validity and eligibility checking, and humans often reach out to the applicant for further documentation. Eventually, states start issuing them payments. When these systems crash, it’s not the website that’s overloaded; the website is just the front door. It’s the legacy system behind it that’s having trouble with the load. All the stories you’re reading about the unemployment websites in states being down, which in turn causes people to flood the call centers — that’s because the website is talking with that legacy system in the background and that legacy system has overloaded.

So, what can be done?

If we’re going to start cutting checks to people who desperately need them under PUA, we have to reduce the load on those legacy systems so they stop crashing, while increasing the number of applications that get processed. Here are four ways to do that:

  1. Streamline the application itself. Consider the minimum set of questions you need to ask in an application and just ask those. Make your website clear — say explicitly that you are accepting Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Applications as well as Unemployment Insurance Applications, or give a timeline when you will. U.S. Digital Response (USDR) has put up a sample streamlined web form, you can view it here.
  2. Let users “self-attest.” In other words, don’t require proof of everything in the application, like how many kids you have or whether you own a car. Every piece of documentation that’s required adds tasks and load to both the human systems and the computer system, and makes it harder for the people maintaining the system to keep it up and running. While this slightly increases the risk of fraudulent applications, the potential for misuse of the system must be balanced with the speed of delivery.
  3. Stand up a new cloud-based, secure, scalable website that allows people to apply at any time, but holds those applications and only pushes data to the legacy systems when it won’t bring the whole system down. Instead of sending all applications to the legacy system as they come in, administrators can choose when they get sent, possibly overnight, thus spreading the load out. This is easier than it sounds; in fact, the state of Rhode Island is already doing this and it is this exact strategy that made them the first state in the country to process PUA applications. Rhode Island worked with RIPL, a Rhode Island-based non-profit, to stand up their site in just 10 days. USDR’s “quickstart UI application” can be set up in one day on the cloud provider of your choice. Reach out here.
  4. Run validations and de-duplication outside of your legacy system whenever possible. Once your applications are coming into this “quickstart application,” only send them into the legacy system when you have a “clean” claim. Remember that what happens now is that an application for UI comes through the website and into the system, where various processes around verifying eligibility have to occur before the first check is cut to the recipient. Every time you have to touch a particular application between the time it enters the legacy system and the time the check is cut creates load on the system. If you can decide which ones are approved, denied, or need more information, and then get that more information and make a final decision — all outside of the legacy system, then the only thing you’re using the legacy system for is to input approved applications that will result in the PUA benefit being delivered to the person in need.

As I said, this is not a silver bullet. For instance, this does not address the problem of needing to hire more people to process these claims. But these are four good choices, spanning policy and technology, that will help states be able to deliver PUA benefits to people in need quickly. It is also possible to make bad choices, ones that will result in frustration and despair for those who need the help, and more work for those administering the program. I mentioned earlier that some states require applicants to first apply for UI benefits through the regular system and wait to receive a rejection before they’re allowed to apply for PUA. This has the obvious downside of dramatically increasing the load on legacy systems, doubling down on the problem in the first place. More important is how this affecting the applicants. If you’ve ever needed a government benefit and had to jump through dozens of hoops to get it, you’ll understand the emotional toll these needless processes take on you during a time of intense stress. This is not how our country should treat people.

When states design their processes to require applicants to be rejected, they may be doing so to buy themselves time. There are regulations about how long a state can sit on a benefits application, and the states can be found out of compliance if they take in applications for something like PUA but are slow to process them. Forcing applicants to waste several weeks, or even months, applying for a UI benefit they know they’re not eligible for is, in part, a tactic to delay the date at which the clock starts ticking for the state.

However clever this might be, one thing that will certainly happen is that many applicants will give up, demoralized by the lengthy and confusing process. Unfortunately, it’s often those applicants under the greatest stress with the least means of persisting through a hellish process who will give up, which exacerbates inequality. This is a prime example of what Dave Guarino calls “rationing by friction,” and it ends up helping least those who need it most.

Here to help

The fix starts with courageous policy choices supported by sound technology choices. By taking the applications now, even if they won’t go into the legacy system for processing right away, and then communicating with applicants as much as possible about when they are likely to hear about their claim, we begin meeting the need that PUA is designed to address with the greatest efficiency, effectiveness and humanity.

If you’re working on the problem from inside government, USDR is here to help. Not only can we help you stand up a quickstart application, but we’ve already placed COBOL programmers in two states and have three more who’ve offered to help — all on a volunteer basis. We understand that the advice above is not applicable to all states, and that some are already doing this. However, if your state’s system is having problems and it may be weeks until it gets resolved, it may be worth considering alternatives. Please reach out by emailing pua-requests@usdigitalresponse.org

The CARES Act was signed into law on March 27. That’s three weeks ago today. The fact that some states are already accepting applications for PUA is remarkable, and the hard work that public servants everywhere are putting into PUA deserves appreciation. It’s hard to move fast in government, with its hefty compliance burdens and long procurement cycles. But the economic devastation we are experiencing now is unprecedented in my lifetime, and speed matters more than ever. So does dignity. We can make choices that help those affected with both speed and dignity, at a very low cost. Let’s make those choices.

You can view a sample PUA Quickstart form at https://papua.usdigitalresponse.org, if you’d like to learn more you can reach our team at pua-requests@usdigitalresponse.org



Jennifer Pahlka
U.S. Digital Response

Author of Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better, Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists