DC introduces new unemployment insurance and identity verification system

D.C.'s Department of Employment Services headquarters. Photo by Chris Kain/DC Line

Following criticism over how the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) handled unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency announced a change to its unemployment insurance (UI) benefits system.

The new system will allow claimants to apply for benefits in conjunction with ID.me, an online identity verification platform. DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes believes the new system will streamline the filing process and help prevent benefits fraud, according to a press release earlier this month.

The new system will officially become operational Feb. 5, but claimants can verify their identities with 1D.me now. Once the new portal is up, claimants will be able to submit tax forms, file new UI claims, check the status of existing claims and communicate with DOES customer support using the portal.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as thousands of D.C. residents lost their jobs, some reported waiting up to 12 hours to speak to DOES representatives and months to receive benefits. In light of those issues, along with reports of at least 13,000 fraudulent unemployment claims during the same time, the District’s inspector general recommended last April that DOES make changes to its UI system. The report suggested that DOES improve the efficiency of the unemployment claim processing system, simplify the verification process and increase staff supervision.

DOES hopes the new system should do just that, according to the press release. To prevent fraud, the new UI system will use ID.me, an online platform designed to help users verify their identities.
Government agencies, including New Jersey’s Department of Labor and the Social Security Administration, use the program to process paperwork and file unemployment claims. Private businesses, including clothing and cell phone companies, also use the software to verify identities for military, teacher and health care provider discounts.

To verify identities, ID.me’s primary self-service option uses facial recognition software, which has been known to exhibit racial bias, reportedly failing to recognize people of color as well as their white counterparts, according to a United Nations report. Although ID.me was not named in the report, the U.S. inspector general last March reported concerns that facial ID systems similar to ID.me “may not result in equitable and secure access to UI benefits” due to some algorithms demonstrating racial and gender biases. ID.me’s guide for users says verification via video chat is available for anyone who runs into a problem, and a spokesperson for the company says in-person verification is also an option.

Additionally, a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee investigation in 2022 found that ID.me subjected claimants to extremely long wait times at the height of the pandemic and exaggerated the need for its technology by providing misleading estimates of fraud, though ID.me disputed the findings.

DOES did not respond to questions by the time of publication.

When New York rolled out ID.me, its UI benefits system, some applicants filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission, reporting difficulties with identity verification and poor customer service, making it hard to access benefits. Other critics argued that it is difficult for older residents and those who do not have experience with computers to navigate.

But supporters of the system, including New York, said the technology is necessary to cope with high numbers of people seeking unemployment insurance. Between March 2020 and December 2021, D.C. residents filed more than 280,000 claims for unemployment insurance benefits. Today, D.C.’s unemployment rate is 5.1%, meaning that around 36,000 people in the city are currently unemployed.

To be eligible for UI, claimants must have earned at least $1,950 in wages in the previous 12 months, lost their previous employment “through no fault of their own” and be actively looking for another job each week, among other requirements. Beneficiaries receive up to $444 per week for 26 weeks, with the possibility of 13 more weeks of eligibility in times of high unemployment.

This article has been updated to include comments from ID.me.

Issues |Unemployment

Region |Washington DC

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