In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, nearly 17 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, including approximately 5 million in the last week. Facing stay-at-home orders and physical distancing measures, many workers have applied for unemployment benefits online. Unfortunately, many of the government websites they attempted to use have not been working. Indeed, an ITIF analysis found that at least 26 state government unemployment websites have crashed. And more than 54 percent of the initial unemployment claims filed in the United States during the week ending April 4 were from individuals in states with unemployment websites that had crashed. These crashes have made it more difficult for individuals to apply for and receive benefits.
Moreover, many of these websites are not optimized for people using mobile devices. This is a significant issue because roughly 20 percent of Americans access the Internet at home only via a mobile device, and during the pandemic, they do not have other options, such as going to a library. Some websites explicitly note that they do not work on mobile devices. For example, Florida’s unemployment website states that it does not work on “tablets, phones, and other mobile devices.” And because the site kept crashing, applicants in Florida were instructed to use pen and paper to file unemployment benefits applications—which not only introduces delays in receiving benefits, but also proves unviable for people who cannot easily print the necessary forms or reach a location where physical applications are available. (Last week, Florida did introduce a new site allowing mobile users to submit an initial application, but this new site is not a full substitute for its main unemployment website.)
Furthermore, many of these websites are not designed to be accessible to people with disabilities, such as those with low vision or who use screen readers. More than 8 percent of individuals with disabilities are unemployed, and many individuals with disabilities depend on Internet access to access government services.
To better gauge the overall functionality of state unemployment websites, ITIF tested the page load speed, mobile-friendliness, and accessibility of all 50 state unemployment websites using publicly available tools and converted the results to a score on a 0 to 100 point scale. We tested the government websites that came up first for a Google search of the phrase “[State name]’s unemployment website”—the first webpage a user would likely encounter when attempting to find their state’s unemployment website. Despite performing well on desktop page-load speed, state unemployment websites performed poorly on tests for mobile-page load speed, mobile-friendliness, and accessibility. Indeed, 84 percent of state unemployment websites failed at least one test. These poor scores illustrate that not only are many state unemployment websites ill-suited to handle significant rises in traffic, but they are poorly designed.
There are many reasons why government websites should be designed to meet the needs of mobile users and people with disabilities. First, a significant portion of Americans rely on smartphones for Internet access in their homes, and a disproportionate number of these individuals are low-income and from black and Hispanic communities. Likewise, the effects of COVID-19 disproportionately hurt low-wage workers. For example, only 2.5 percent of jobs that pay more than $70,000 are vulnerable to be laid-off, furloughed, or otherwise unproductive during social distancing, compared to 39 percent of jobs with earnings between $30,000-$40,000. Second, websites that do not adhere to accessibility standards can be more difficult for people with disabilities to use, including the millions of American who have a visual disability.
Slow page-load speeds negatively affect the user experience. We assessed websites’ desktop and mobile page-load speeds using Google’s PageSpeed Insights, a tool that uses both real-world and lab data to measure a variety of speed measures, such as the time it takes for a browser to load the first piece of content on a page. We marked a website as having passed the desktop page-load speed test if it had a score of 55 or higher, and passed the mobile page-load speed test with a score of 57 or higher. We chose these cutoffs based on a 2017 review of the 20 most popular non-government websites. Each of these cutoffs is approximately one standard deviation below the mean of the average scores of the non-government websites.
We found that 56 percent of state unemployment websites failed the mobile page-load speed test and that 8 percent failed the desktop test. The overall performance by the unemployment websites on desktop speed is impressive, particularly considering that ITIF’s 2018 review of 400 state government websites found that 23 percent failed the desktop test. Several state unemployment websites, including Alabama’s, received a score of 100. It is important to note that this test primarily evaluates how the design of a website affects load times. For example, users may still experience slow load times on a well-designed website if the site is hosted on servers with insufficient resources.
But while many sites were properly designed for desktop browsers, more than half of the sites failed the mobile page-load speed test. In addition, the websites performed poorly using PageSpeed Insights’ benchmarks. The tool considers websites that score above a 90 as fast, between 50 and 90 as moderate, and below 50 as slow. Applying these benchmarks, only 16 percent of the mobile versions of state unemployment websites achieved a fast designation, compared to 48 percent of desktop versions. States can improve the speed of their sites in several ways, including by compressing images, removing unused plugins, and increasing the cache lifetime of certain assets, which can speed up a page’s load time for repeat visits.
Mobile devices account for more than half of all web traffic. Furthermore, many Americans can access the Internet only through their smartphone. This reality heightens the importance of Americans being able to access critical information and services, such as unemployment benefits information, easily on a mobile device. To test the experience of individuals who visit state government websites on mobile devices, we used a tool from RankWatch, an Internet marketing platform. The tool checks websites for mobile-friendly best practices, such as that text is large enough to read, all the content fits on the screen, and that the website spaces links are far enough apart to make them easy to click. Unemployment websites that scored an 88 or higher passed the test—a score of 88 is one standard deviation below the average score of 96 for popular non-government websites.
We found that roughly one-third (34 percent) of unemployment websites failed the mobile-friendliness test. Moreover, eight of the sites scored a 70 or below, indicating that these websites are likely highly unfriendly to mobile users, with the websites of New York, Connecticut, and Kentucky performing the worst. Despite the poor performance of many sites, others performed well, including Hawaii’s unemployment website, which scored a perfect 100. States can quickly solve many issues that reduce the mobile-friendliness of their website. For example, states can ensure all buttons meet minimum size requirements and configure the viewport to scale font sizes across devices.
We assessed the accessibility of state government websites using AChecker’s Web Accessibility Checker. It analyzes URLs to identify accessibility issues based on WCAG 2.0, a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standard. The tool examines sites for known problems, likely problems, and potential problems. We only penalize websites if the tool detects known issues, and then assign a score on a scale of 0 to 100. Websites pass the test with a score of 85 or higher.
We found that 39 percent of unemployment websites failed the accessibility test, but that six received a perfect score. These results closely mirror the performance of 400 state government websites ITIF tested in 2018, in which 41 percent of state government websites failed the accessibility test. Louisiana’s unemployment website received the lowest score (67), indicating that its website is likely highly inaccessible. Seven percent of Louisianans have a vision disability.
Citizens should be able to easily access all government services online, including on a smartphone. In particular, these services should be available in times of crises when demand surges. As such, state governments should improve their websites in several ways. First, state governments should design cloud-based websites and applications that are scalable so that they can withstand surges in online traffic.
Second, state governments should pursue a mobile-first design strategy for their sites.
A mobile-first design requires states to design applications to work first for mobile devices,
and then use responsive design to optimize the content for different-sized screens,
Third, states should consolidate their websites and use a consistent design across websites, and this design should meet all accessibility best practices. Too often, the quality and functionality of state websites vary within a state, which can make it difficult for users to find the content they are seeking. In addition, when government agencies launch new websites, they should authorize them to operate only for a fixed period of time, after which time they should replace them, unless a senior government official signs off on their continued operation. This will create more accountability for the quality of sites operated by government agencies. Furthermore, states should collect and report website analytics to monitor their performance across various metrics over time, as well as ensure they are meeting the needs of their users.
Finally, any future stimulus package Congress develops should include funding for states to modernize their websites. Online government services will be particularly important with any future physical distancing, as well as with other future emergencies. But state budgets will face shortfalls in the coming year, and states will be unlikely to invest in e-government without support from the federal government.