The Federal Government Helps States Improve Unemployment with ‘Tiger Teams’
Some states are turning to tigers to improve their unemployment insurance systems.
Tiger Teams, that is.
The U.S. Department of Labor announced on August 21, 2021, that it was creating a “tiger team” program to help states deal with problems that cropped up with unemployment insurance systems when COVID-19, its economic disruption, and fraud put a heavy load on their systems, some of which were decades old.
A Tiger in the Tank
First of all, what is a Tiger Team? It’s actually a term that derives from the military, though it was also used with the Apollo 13 mission in 1970. It’s intended to be a specialized, cross-functional team brought together to solve or investigate a specific problem or critical issue.
In this particular case, the multi-disciplinary tiger teams were made up of experts across many disciplines including fraud specialists, equity and customer service experience specialists, unemployment insurance program specialists, behavioral insights specialists, business intelligence analysts, computer systems engineers/architects and project managers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. They were intended to deploy to states to conduct discovery assessments, provide resources for identification verification, and propose solutions to address fraud and equitable access.
The program, funded by the America Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), was intended to devote a total of $2 billion to work with some states. About $200 million in Tiger Team Recommendation Grants were allocated to
support teams deployed initially in six states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The purpose of the Tiger Team program was specifically to perform state assessments, said Suzan Levine, then acting secretary of labor, when the program was announced. “These consultations will focus on operations, communications, process flows, and technologies that support timeliness of benefit distribution, reduction of backlogs, equity of benefits access and awareness, and fraud prevention and detection,” she said. “States have the opportunity to work with the Tiger Teams to develop customized recommendations for their states focused on quick wins as well as potential access to funding to implement those recommendations.”
“States are facing acute – and varied – challenges that need to be better identified and addressed around the process of preventing and detecting fraud, promoting equitable access, eliminating backlogs and ensuring timely payment of benefits,” the U.S. Department of Labor said in August. “The department is addressing these challenges by sending experts directly to the states, to work hand in hand with states to identify solutions. Despite ongoing efforts to add staff, deploy innovations and address backlogs – many states’ backlogs are persisting. With this funding the department will be able to support states more comprehensively to address these issues. Deploying these teams and resources will help states zero in on what’s working and should be shared and what’s not, and should be addressed.”
Which States are Participating?
Colorado, Washington State, Kansas, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Nevada were the first states to join the program, with the Department of Labor saying that states would continue to be added throughout the year.
Later in the year, Alabama, Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania were added. Most recently, the Department of Labor sent Tiger Teams to six more states — Arizona, Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Oregon – making a total of 18, according to Bloomberg Law.
Areas targeted for improvement by the teams in their first dozen states included simplifying instructions and system prompts, and bettering “translation, disability access, addressing bottlenecks and improving data,” reported Bloomberg Law.
In Colorado, for example, the Tiger Team worked with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE) last fall to deal with a backlog of more than 1.1 million claims issues and got the remaining claimants back on track, according to a news report from Channel 4 CBS in Denver. “A spokesperson with CDLE said the Tiger Team is finalizing a recommendation report for the CDLE, which will help direct new federal grant funding requests to bolster the CDLE’s efforts in the near future,” the station reported.
In Wisconsin, the Tiger Team partnered with the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) to help DWD expand efforts against fraud, according to Wisconsin Public Radio, and is also working with the state on its unemployment insurance modernization program. “Our phased implementation of a customer contact management system, improved appeals processes and dynamic staffing all will benefit from the Tiger Team deployment,” DWD Secretary-designee Amy Pechacek said when the program was announced.
This partnership was praised by Wisconsin Unemployment, a blog devoted to comment and analysis on unemployment in Wisconsin. “This funding is a BIG deal,” wrote author Victor Forberger, a labor and employment attorney in Madison. “The Secretary’s office is to be congratulated for securing this funding and the arrival of a Tiger team in Wisconsin, as it represents the first major push to revamp the claim-filing process in this state. This tiger team represents for the first time a group of experts who can call out the bad advice and guidance being offered from the upper-level managers inside the Department.”
Altogether, Wisconsin received more than a dozen recommendations to improve its unemployment insurance system—including simplifying the language used throughout its website and application documents, wrote Bloomberg Law.
“Since our last report, the Tiger Team has drafted recommendations for possible solutions that complement and expand the modernization project,” Pechacek and Department of Administration Secretary-designee Kathy Blumenfeld reported to members of the state’s Joint Committee on Finance and Joint Committee on Information Policy and Technology on January 31. “DWD is currently working with the U.S. DOL to finalize the Tiger Team’s recommendations, which will serve as the basis to apply for additional federal funding to finance the projects.”
The Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency began partnering with the Tiger Team in January. The team is recommending resources or processes that address fraud, case backlog, equity, and systems, according to the Shelby-Utica News. The state was slated to receive up to $5.2 million in funding, according to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
“DOL Tiger Team experts will work closely with UIA staff to understand agency limitations that were magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the ability of criminals to take advantage of system weaknesses to steal benefits,” the UIA announced in January. “The Tiger Team will develop recommendations that will have near-term positive impacts in each focus area. The solutions may include activities such as workflow adjustments, process improvements, technology updates, and/or revising communication.”