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Why Do We Treat Unemployment Applicants as Potential Criminals?

Stern anti-fraud messaging can keep eligible people from applying for the benefits they need. There are effective ways to help people through the application process without threatening them.

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(USA TODAY NETWORK FILE PHOTO)
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In response to the economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, Congress dramatically increased unemployment insurance, adding $600 a week on top of normal benefits while broadly expanding eligibility, and tens of millions have applied for the benefits in recent weeks. However, creating an impressive-sounding policy is one thing; implementing it well is another. The details of how states deliver these benefits matter, and the devil is in those details.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) is available to anyone who "self-certifies" as not being able to work because of the pandemic, whether they were furloughed or lost their job due to a business closure, or were unable to work because they became sick or had to take care of a family member. But there's a catch: U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) guidelines require states to include messaging in the self-certification process warning that claimants could be prosecuted if they are found to have committed fraud.

While the goal of this provision is to keep people who are not eligible for benefits from applying, there's evidence that the warnings are keeping away people who do likely qualify. Stern warnings about prosecution are likely to lead people to quickly decide that no matter how badly they need the money, it's not worth the risk. As one would-be applicant tweeted, "Trying to figure out unemployment stuff for my furlough is v confusing. I just want money to pay bills, but i also don't want to accidentally commit fraud and go to jail." Or as another put it, "lol can't wait to go to jail for fraud bc I got confused when answering unemployment questions."

It's not hard to understand the confusion. Many people's situations will be legitimately ambiguous under the new eligibility rules. Can you file if you believe you have contracted the coronavirus but have not been tested? Can you file if you need to take care of a child but hypothetically could have asked a relative to step in instead? Can you be sure that the struggling business where you worked closed down because of the pandemic, or would it have failed anyway?

The PUA guidelines specifically state that "quitting work without good cause to obtain UI benefits is fraud," but many people may not feel confident that DOL will interpret "good cause" the same way they do. Understanding who qualifies is complicated, and in situations of uncertainty individuals will fear being accused of fraud if they simply misinterpret these complex eligibility requirements.

More broadly, such an emphasis on avoiding fraud changes the nature of the relationship between people in dire economic straits and a government that aims to help them. This pandemic is a national crisis, which requires all of us to work together toward a common goal. Messaging like this — effectively accusing anyone who applies for unemployment insurance of being a potential fraudster — weakens this call for national unity. On top of that, paradoxically, this message could actually make some people more likely to falsify their information: When applying for unemployment benefits is framed as nothing more than a transactional relationship between the state and a person, why not treat it like one?

Thankfully, there is another way: appealing to our better natures. Instead of threatening applicants with fines and legal action, DOL could simply encourage them via a message in the application to answer honestly, as a valued partner in fighting the pandemic. It can also apply other proven practices from behavioral sciences, such as placing the signature box where applicants certify the truth and accuracy of the information being submitted at the top of the application form rather than at the end.

Even if DOL doesn't make those changes, states have some leeway to interpret the federal guidance and could do so as broadly as possible, recognizing that a wide range of circumstances could lead individuals to need assistance. States can demonstrate that they recognize the strain that many applicants are under and make efforts to reduce the burden of applying for unemployment assistance. They can provide straightforward guidance to applicants and reduce red tape as much as possible. They can treat applicants as the experts in their own situations, soliciting their feedback and applying it to make programs more applicant-friendly as this process evolves.

By treating applicants as partners and people in need, rather than approaching them with suspicion or as potential criminals, governments can help millions of Americans get by in this crisis while affirming people's dignity and trust in their government.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

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