In January 2020, 216,000 people filed for unemployment insurance nationwide. Just a few months later, more than 40 million had applied – a difference of staggering proportions.

State departments of labor – around the country and here in Maine – have come under relentless fire for not effectively handling this explosion of claims. In state after state, there were calls for investigations, firings and even lawsuits against departments.

No state escaped this situation. This tells us that the problem was not caused by any individual state action, official or administration.

For years, state unemployment systems – predominantly federally funded – have steadily fallen behind in technology and program modernization. They simply were not equipped to handle a crisis of this magnitude.

This absence of capacity was felt by millions of workers who were unable to access the benefits they had been promised would come quickly. Their frustration, anger and desperation focused on the perceived cause of the problem – state labor departments.

When the pandemic hit, departments faced a multitude of problems. Skyrocketing claims and structural limitations overwhelmed technology and communication systems. The complexity of claims procedures – which, incidentally, are mandated by state and federal law – made it difficult to train new staff quickly. Most states had no capacity to process claims for independent contractors who became eligible for benefits under the CARES Act. And topping it off was a criminal effort to steal billions in fraudulent claims.

In addition to unemployment insurance, many state labor departments are either responsible for, or participate in, other important aspects of employment affected by the pandemic. This includes workplace safety and health, wage and hour protections, rehabilitation services, job search assistance, employment statistics, foreign labor certification and education and training.

With millions facing unemployment, state labor departments essentially became a first responder in an economic emergency. Unfortunately, they had neither the resources nor the infrastructure to meet the need.

Many employees in these departments, including those in Maine, have devoted their professional lives to supporting and protecting workers. They watched as their systems essentially were flooded out while the criticism poured in. They are doing their best under near-impossible circumstances.

States are taking steps to shore up their workforce systems. In the short run, this includes tapping private-sector talent and resources, while pressing for additional financial support and flexibility from the federal government.

States also should advocate collectively and forcefully for a national strategy to protect and support front-line workers, many of whom are having to choose between returning to work in unsafe circumstances, or losing their benefits. The U.S. Department of Labor is responsible for “assuring safe and healthful working conditions.” To live up to this mandate in light of COVID-19, this federal agency needs to say more, do more and lead more.

Longer-term, lawmakers can benefit from extensive and well-researched recommendations of national employment experts and advocates. They also should seek the perspectives of employees within USDOL and state labor departments, who have ideas about how to do things differently, and better.

Having long been a proponent of government reform, I am not an apologist for any federal or state agency. I understand the need for change and I know it is possible. But I also understand the realities under which the hardworking, dedicated staff of these organizations operate. They have very little flexibility. The changes needed are not in their hands. Particularly in federally funded programs (Labor is just one example), the changes often are not even within the control of governors.

Like everyone, I hope that the end of this pandemic is in sight. But that prospect is far from certain – perhaps even unlikely. We must be prepared for a second or third wave of COVID-19, and for the next major disaster. This means looking ahead and working together to fortify not only our health care infrastructure, but also our systems of supporting workers and their families through what could be extended periods of high unemployment.

It is extremely challenging to plan ahead while in the midst of a crisis, but that is precisely what we must do if we are to be prepared for what comes next. Nationwide, workers and their families are depending on it.


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