In light of millions of Americans applying for unemployment benefits due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., are looking to modernize state unemployment systems.

The Emergency Benefits for Independent Workers Program Act, introduced May 6, would create a $500 million fund at the Department of Labor to help states fund modernizing state Unemployment Insurance (UI) technology systems. The senators want to include the legislation in the next COVID-19 relief package.

The legislators said their goal is to help states “facilitate expanded benefits eligibility and support long term innovation, and to create portable benefits programs.” The bill specifically targets “portable benefits programs,” which are “work-related benefits that are provided to eligible workers for eligible work in a manner that allows the worker to maintain the benefits upon changing jobs,” due to the rise in self-employed, gig and contract workers who can be left out of traditional unemployment benefits.

The additional funding would help states, in partnership with cities and non-profits, experiment with “innovative” proposals for portable benefits, including paid leave, worker’s comp, the longer-term expansion of unemployment insurance eligibility, and other programs specific to local economies.

“For years, I’ve been sounding alarm bells about how millions of self-employed, gig, and contract workers are falling through the holes in our social safety net. Now, the coronavirus crisis has put that grim reality into stark relief,” said Warner. “It’s imperative that Congress act to provide states with the flexibility to experiment with innovative models for assisting these workers.”

The bill also received praise from think tanks and labor unions.

“Our employment system needs to catch up with the rapidly changing technological landscape and shifting nature of work. Portable benefits made sense before the crisis, and today the need is urgent,” said Marcela Escobari, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “This legislation provides the impetus for states to upgrade systems, innovate, and support workers through streamlined delivery of benefits.  Portable benefits are a key component of a modernized employment system. By making it easier for workers to access benefits like healthcare, sick leave, and training, portable benefits can help states create a more resilient and tech-savvy workforce as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis.”

David Rolf, founder and president emeritus, Service Employees International Union 775, praised the bill, saying “Senator Warner and Representative DelBene’s proposal accomplishes two essential goals: modernizing state unemployment system technology, and jump-starting portable benefits for the millions of hard working Americans who have been excluded from employment-based benefits.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs