How a Partnership Between Government and RIPL Made Rhode Island a National Leader in Delivering CARES Act, Emergency COVID-19 Benefits to its Workers and Families

State legacy systems are crashing under the pressure of claims applications from 22 million newly-unemployed Americans. Research Improving People’s Lives partnered with Rhode Island leaders to use data, science, and technology to quickly get Rhode Islanders the benefits they need.

Millions are unemployed, and states can’t keep up

The COVID-19 pandemic and shut-down of the U.S. economy has put tens of millions of Americans in financial crisis. Old state legacy systems haven’t been able to keep up with the unprecedented surge in Unemployment Insurance (UI) applications: many have predicted weeks, if not months, of delay in distributing benefits.

Delays are especially long for the self-employed individuals, gig and contract workers, and small business owners who are now eligible for Unemployment Insurance benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program. These applications put intense pressure on legacy systems, as states must stand up entirely new programs to handle them. 

Rhode Island leaders and RIPL leaned into data and technology to deliver benefits in days instead of weeks

A new Governing Magazine article describes how RIPL, the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (DLT), the Rhode Island Department of Information Technology  (DoIT), and Amazon Web Services (AWS) made Rhode Island the first state to deliver PUA benefits by building and launching a cloud-based state PUA system in just 10 days. When the system launched on April 7, it received a record number of over 11,000 claims seamlessly on its first day. To date, the system has already received and processed over 35,000 PUA applications.

RIPL partnered with DLT, DoIT, and AWS to stand up a system that combines customized front-end survey design for PUA applicants; a secure AWS cloud system that can flexibly handle high traffic without crashing; and custom code to automatically transform survey responses into easily processible data for the state’s legacy COBOL mainframe system. The system automatically verifies income, one of the key pieces of an unemployment  application, using state tax information — thus removing barriers to submitting paper documentation and getting benefits out faster to the people who need them.

“This project proved we can be more agile and get fast, high-value results for our state and our constituents,” Scott Jensen, the Director of DLT, told Governing Magazine. “It’s time to innovate and see how we can make the user experience better when people really need us…. the new system demonstrates what cloud technology can do.”

Rhode Island paid the most claims, the fastest of any state in the first days of crisis. Source: Kevin Rinz, "Understanding Unemployment Insurance Claims and Other Labor Market Data During the COVID-19"

Rhode Island paves the way for other states to efficiently and effectively deliver benefits to their workers and families

The success of the system is a mix of smart policy decisions, innovative integration of modular and cutting-edge cloud technology, and proactive leadership with a commitment to using data and science for effective decision making. As a result, PUA-eligible Rhode Islanders are the first in the country to get the benefits they need during the pandemic.


“It has been inspiring to work alongside innovative, energetic leaders who keep their eyes fixed on what matters most: bringing us all together to help the people of Rhode Island,” said RIPL Founding Director Justine Hastings. “We are proud to partner with Rhode Island and AWS to build a system that policymakers and all Americans can rely on.”


The system, RIPL CARES, is also paving the way for other states: it is scalable, easily installed, and free to use. RIPL has developed an open-source software package, including a how-to guide and all needed templates and code, that any state can use to stand up its own PUA system in one week.