By: Kevin Parker - February 8, 2023

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, over 100 million initial claims for unemployment insurance (UI) have been filed in the U.S. At the height of the pandemic in April 2020, more than 6 million applications poured in during just a week. More than 46 million individuals -- roughly one in four American workers -- have received at least one week of UI benefits (source 1, source 2), which the Federal Reserve Bank recently found have a greater impact than other forms of economic stimulus measure (source). This has made UI one of the widest-reaching government programs and put it under enormous pressure for accuracy, efficiency, and fairness. 

UI is a complex program and system with a unique set of terms (i.e., lexicon) outlining its rules and functionalities. For individuals attempting to secure benefits, this lexicon forms a barrier to understanding and navigating the system. Claimant-facing communications hosted on publicly accessible websites, application portals, as well as in handbooks and instruction pamphlets, are filled with ill-defined jargon and nuanced usages that create confusion, frustration, and misunderstanding. The confusion diverts resources (e.g., time of the call center representative as the claimants call for clarification of a term), causes delays and mistakes, and breeds friction. The negative customer experience resulting from complicated and poorly defined terminology contributes to decreased user satisfaction, loss of confidence and trust in the UI system, and widening disparities in UI benefit access. Additionally, unclear communication can cause claimants to provide incomplete or inaccurate information with their initial claims, which may result in improper payments.

To better understand the problem and find potential solutions, we conducted an exploratory UI Lexicon research project. We identified the most common terms used across UI programs, analyzed their definitions as appearing in various claimant-facing information platforms, examined the sources of confusion and misunderstanding, and drafted improved definitions for these terms in plain language. Here is a summary of what we discovered. 

Common pitfalls with glossary access and availability of definitions  

We collected the glossaries of UI terms from 50 states and 3 territories (collectively, “states”). Thirty-three states had organized their own glossary lists, which were posted either online or in claimant handbooks. For the states that didn’t have published glossaries, we extracted terms that are explained in FAQ pages, claimant handbooks, and other claimant-facing information sources. 

We found that even for the states with published glossaries, the definitions were often not easily accessible. The links to the glossaries might be embedded in the body text of UI websites, in drop headers or in the footers. In several instances, it took multiple clicks and scrolls to access the glossary page. A more easily accessible placement of the links would be on the homepage or in the top or sidebar navigation menu. Sometimes the glossary pages appeared not to be linked to anything (that is, we were only able to access them if we explicitly searched for them), which would decrease their utility. In the claimant handbooks we reviewed, the glossary (if available) was most commonly appended at the end. There was no way to reference the glossary or definitions of terms while reading other pages, online or offline.

Another problem is that the glossary lists were not designed for claimants. Glossaries often combined terms used for claimants, employers, and economists, with highly technical definitions, nuanced synonyms, and terms that would be irrelevant to claimants (e.g., those used for labor statistics). Some states had no glossary in the claimant-facing pages, instead including it in the employer’s section. The average reading level of all the available glossaries and definitions was 10th grade, with almost a third scoring 12th grade and above. This showed that there is plenty of room for improving the plain language definitions. 

This chart shows the most frequently used terms across all states' UI materials.
This chart shows the most frequently used terms across all states' UI materials.

High-frequency words in the UI lexicon 

We collected a total of 2,350 terms and 1,166 distinct terms defined in the states’ publicly available information sources. The states varied widely in how many terms were included in their glossaries or defined in some way in claimant-facing information; most glossaries contained 20-40 terms, but some had as few as 2 terms or as many as 130. After grouping the distinct terms into synonyms describing the same concept, we identified 80 concepts that were defined in more than 5 states. The terms that tied for the top place were “weekly benefit amount” and “base period,” which were each defined in 43 states.  

Definition analysis of most frequently used UI terms 

Next, we zoomed in on the top 20 terms by frequency and examined how different states and territories defined these terms. While we identified some common themes, there were variations in how the terms were defined and applied in context by the states. For example, “maximum benefit amount,” which is the fourth-most-frequently-defined term, can mean either the total amount of benefits payable to a claimant during the benefit year (equaling to weekly benefit amount times the number of eligible weeks), or the legally defined maximum amount or the ceiling of UI benefit in the state. Understandably, this and similar variations in definitions can be quite confusing for claimants.

There were also variations in how thoroughly terms were defined and how much contextual information accompanied the definitions. Sometimes tables and charts were included to illustrate the base period or the formulas and exact percentages used to calculate the weekly benefit amount from wages. Sometimes the definitions were very succinct. Too much information can overwhelm the claimant, who may feel lost in all the technicality. On the other hand, too little information does not sufficiently clarify what the term means. Striking an optimal balance with the clear and easy to understand explanation can be challenging.

Other common pitfalls we identified with definitions included:

  • Use of outdated dates, amounts, and formulas  
  • Inclusion of undefined qualifying terminology   
  • Use of legal and economics jargon 
  • Citation of laws with no explanation of what the law is or how it applies to UI  
  • The same term may have different implications when applied in different circumstances, which are not well explained. How the concept applies to the claimant is unclear: no instructions given on what the claimant should do with the information 
  • Different versions of a given term for the claimant vs. the employer  
  • Use of a tone that conveys intimidation, blame, and disrespect 
  • Vague or broad definitions   
  • Lack of explanation of exceptions and waivers 
  • Lack of clarity regarding which terms are interchangeable and which have nuanced differences in definitions 

Creating common-sense plain language definitions for the UI lexicon 

Based on what we learned from analyzing the existing definitions of the top 20 terms, we concluded that improved plain language definitions are urgently needed for the UI lexicon in order to help claimants understand and navigate the system. The ideal characteristics we would suggest in the definitions are:

  • Plain language – reading level 8th grade or below 
  • Minimal legal and economics jargon 
  • Short and succinct, so definitions can be included as “hover over” or pop ups (contextual help) on UI webpages 
  • Inclusion of simple diagrams and visual aids when necessary 
  • Links to pages with more detailed explanations on related topics 
  • Links to other glossary terms used within a given definition 
  • List synonyms or truly interchangeable terms, or provide clarifying definitions when terms are used differentially 
  • Use of second-person voice to directly address the claimant 
  • Use of a neutral or supportive tone

The resulting plain language definitions for the top 20 terms will be posted on the OUIM Reference Site in the future. Once we post the list of terms, we’ll welcome feedback from state and territory UI agencies, UI claimant advocacy groups, and other stakeholders to help continue refining and improving the definitions. Finally, we believe this list of 20 most commonly used terms would be a useful addition to any state UI website and claimant handbook.

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