Rhode Island’s Unemployment Insurance Team Delivers Data Transparency to Claimants Using AWS


The State of Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (Rhode Island DLT) delivers temporary income support in the form of unemployment insurance (UI) and reemployment assistance to residents. During the COVID-19 pandemic, state unemployment agencies were challenged to deliver unemployment benefits at the speed and scale required. The Rhode Island DLT received more than 140,000 initial claims for the UI program in the first 45 days after the governor declared a state of emergency. By comparison, the state—with a population of slightly over one million people—received 107,000 initial claims during the peak of the Great Recession. This surge led to an increase in the requests for assistance from residents as they navigated a complex UI system, many for the first time.

To better serve residents during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, the Rhode Island DLT decided to use Amazon Web Services (AWS) to make the unemployment process more transparent for UI claimants. The department looked to the AWS Worldwide Public Sector Digital Innovation (AWS WWPS DI) team to help it innovate on behalf of its users. During these sessions, a dedicated Digital Innovation Specialist introduces participants to the “Working Backwards” design thinking process to brainstorm solutions that will solve their customers’ most urgent needs. The team of participants then creates a PRFAQ, which consists of a mock press release (PR), where the customer leaps into the future and writes the press release announcing the launch of this new product or service, and a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) that describe in further detail how they will bring the solution to life. The creation of these materials includes asking and answering the five “Working Backwards” questions as defined by Amazon:

1.    Who is our customer?
2.    What is the customer problem or opportunity?
3.    Is the most important customer benefit clear?
4.    How do you know what customers need or want?
5.    What does the customer experience look like?

This is the same process Amazon used to create the Kindle, Amazon Echo, and AWS itself.

By engaging the AWS WWPS DI team on multiple occasions, the Rhode Island DLT created several innovative solutions to solve its customers’ most pressing needs. These include UI Online (or the “pizza tracker,” as it became known), which will provide residents with 24/7 online access to information about their unemployment claims, and two new chatbots—Hope and Skipper—to help claimants navigate the UI process and find reemployment. Through these efforts, the Rhode Island DLT is providing a streamlined, transparent, and more holistic experience for workers seeking unemployment assistance.
Members of the Rhode Island DLT team gather at a table for an AWS Digital Innovation session.

Using AWS, we can use technology to do the simple tasks so that our employees can use their time to work on complex problems.”

Abby McQuade
Senior Advisor and Chief Innovation Officer, 
State of Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training

Making the Unemployment Process More Transparent Using AWS

In early 2020, the Rhode Island DLT used AWS to build a system that could accept the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance applications that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act introduced. Following the success of this deployment, the department was determined to continue innovating to transform the state’s UI system using AWS. “Unemployment insurance is a black box for people who collect benefits,” says Abby McQuade, senior advisor and chief innovation officer for the Rhode Island DLT. “We wanted to give people more information and increased transparency.”

In May 2020, the Rhode Island DLT participated in a “Working Backwards” workshop facilitated by the AWS WWPS DI team. During these sessions, the Rhode Island DLT developed the idea for its “pizza tracker” tool—an online portal that will track the status of a claimant’s UI benefits from the moment they submit their claim through final payment. Not only will this tool educate claimants about the UI process and help them track their UI claims but it will also help them quickly resolve potential issues by immediately surfacing problems. Following the “Working Backwards” workshop, the Rhode Island DLT engaged AWS Professional Services—a global team of experts that can help businesses realize their desired outcomes on AWS—and an AWS Partner to conduct the user interface design and develop the “pizza tracker.”

UI Online will use AWS AppSync, a fully managed service that makes it simple to develop scalable GraphQL APIs, to respond to API calls and read from the department’s legacy UI database. By making this data accessible, the Rhode Island DLT expects that the new portal will reduce the number of calls coming into its call center. “In a single day, we receive about 110,000 calls from about 6,000 individuals,” says McQuade. Because many callers are only asking for UI claim status updates, UI Online will reduce the need for these inquiries, giving claimants peace of mind and easing the burden on employees who were previously spending the majority of their time managing these requests. “Any time government can make itself more transparent, that serves the public good,” says McQuade.

Developing Massively Scalable Tools on AWS to Support Workers

In addition to improving the claims process, the Rhode Island DLT wanted to do more to help people who are unemployed or underemployed find good, stable jobs. “We have staff members who are experts at performing this work,” says McQuade. “But we can’t possibly have enough staff to help everyone at the level we want.” After participating in a second “Working Backwards” workshop facilitated by the AWS WWPS DI team, the department designed two cloud-based digital staff members in the form of chatbots. The chatbot named Hope provides answers to claimants’ UI questions, and Skipper supports those searching for reemployment opportunities.

The department uses Amazon Lex, a service for building conversational interfaces into an application using voice and text, to power the chatbots’ conversational interfaces. “Using AWS, we can use technology to do the simple tasks so that our employees can use their time to work on complex problems,” says McQuade. “Taking somebody from unemployment all the way through to reemployment—that’s what we want to do as a department.” By using the AWS WWPS DI team and AWS services, the department hopes to scale its team’s ability to help thousands of workers in the state find income support and valuable opportunities.

Bringing It All Together on AWS

The next step in the Rhode Island DLT’s innovation journey includes designing an internal dashboard to consolidate all of a claimant’s UI information, as well as other data the state has about that resident, into a single view. Previously, the Rhode Island DLT customer service representatives had to navigate multiple applications to gain a holistic picture of a claimant to resolve issues. The time it took to look through this information—and the manual processes involved—created delays in getting claimants their benefits. With claimants’ information readily available through this dashboard, customer service representatives will be able to resolve issues quickly and make sure that unemployed residents get the help they need.

Solving Systemic Challenges Using Cloud Technology

Using the AWS WWPS DI team and the “Working Backwards” mechanism, the Rhode Island DLT is deploying scalable cloud-based tools to provide more holistic support for unemployed workers. Additionally, by making the UI system more transparent and efficient, the department is freeing up its staff to focus on solving more complex UI issues for claimants.

“If you work in government, you’ve dedicated yourself to serving the public,” says McQuade. “The way we’re doing that is by moving forward with the people we aim to help, using the technology that’s available today on AWS to serve them better.”

About the State of Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training

The Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training offers employment services and economic opportunities to individuals and employers. It protects Rhode Island’s workforce by enforcing labor laws and workplace safety and also provides temporary income support to unemployed workers.

Benefits of AWS

  • Reduces call center hold time
  • Increases the transparency of the UI process
  • Provides better updates to claimants
  • Reduces and more quickly addresses claimant errors
  • Improves employee productivity
  • Enhances information accessibility for staff
  • Educated staff on AWS design thinking principles

AWS Services Used

AWS AppSync

AWS AppSync is a fully managed service that makes it easy to develop GraphQL APIs by handling the heavy lifting of securely connecting to data sources like AWS DynamoDB, Lambda, and more. Adding caches to improve performance, subscrisy. Once deployed, AWS AppSync automatically scales your GraphQL API execution engine up and down to meet API request volumes.

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Amazon Lex

Amazon Lex is a fully managed artificial intelligence (AI) service with advanced natural language models for building conversational interfaces into applications.

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AWS Professional Services

The AWS Professional Services organization is a global team of experts that can help you realize your desired business outcomes when using the AWS Cloud. We work together with your team and your chosen member of the AWS Partner Network (APN) to deliver your enterprise cloud computing initiatives.

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