In the past few weeks, the Vermont Department of Labor faced what seemed like an impossible task: An enormous backlog of unprocessed unemployment claims from workers who were laid off, furloughed or otherwise unable to work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Vermonters who needed unemployment checks to pay their bills were growing desperate.
Despite the odds, this got fixed.
Over the weekend, the Department of Labor plowed through 32,000 unprocessed claims with critical assistance from several state agencies. Their work made it possible for thousands of Vermonters to make claims online in what had previously been a phone-only system, and for thousands of errors — mainly user errors — to be spotted and fixed.
For more than 8,000 cases that could not be fixed, the department sent out checks for $1,200 — accounting for two weeks' worth of federal unemployment benefits that would have started the week of March 29.
The employees of multiple state agencies deserve credit for their dedication and hard work in this crucial task. They stepped up in a crisis. Hopefully, the solutions they worked out will stick and make things easier for out-of-work Vermonters until some semblance of normalcy returns.
As we move forward, let's ask this: Why does the Vermont Department of Labor have a more than 30-year-old computer mainframe system, one that made responding to this crisis even more complicated than it needed to be?
According to John Quinn of the Agency of Digital Services, the Department of Labor's ancient mainframe runs on COBOL, a once-common, now-rare computer programming language. Finding programmers who work in COBOL is difficult enough; finding those with that skill and knowledge of unemployment insurance is even harder.
The Department of Labor's tech woes were no secret in Montpelier. But as Quinn explained, fixing that is not as simple as it could be or should be. The U.S. Department of Labor wants states to build new unemployment claims systems on open source platforms in consortium with other states, on the premise that it would save money. For one reason or another, Vermont hasn't been able to find the right suitor, and it's still looking.
It's going to be expensive. A replacement system will cost an estimated $35 million, Quinn said.
Undoubtedly, this crisis should provide clarity to state decision-makers on making technology upgrades a priority. Already, the Agency of Digital Services has worked at streamlining the state's technology platforms. But the state's oldest platforms are also its most heavily used and most critical, and upgrades come with a steep price tag. According to Quinn, replacing the integrated eligibility system for the Department of Human Services could run between $80 million and $200 million, while a new system for the Department of Motor Vehicles is estimated at $45 million.
Certainly, this pandemic has tested the capacity of multiple systems that were never designed to handle the enormous strain — more than 70,000 claims between mid-March and April 9. And Vermont is not the only state that found antiquated unemployment claims technology wanting at a critical moment.
But the crisis does point out the importance of making sure the state's mission-critical infrastructure can be depended upon. The Scott administration and the Legislature ought to keep that in mind when crafting the state's capital budget going forward, and set aside funds to make these needed improvements.