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Software from the ’50s, hardware from the ’70s: Outdated tech adding to WI’s unemployment struggles

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MADISON (WKOW) -- When someone applies for unemployment insurance benefits in Wisconsin, they're liking only aware of what's happening on their side of the screen. Inside the system Wisconsin's Department of Workforce Development uses to process unemployment benefits is software that dates back to the 1950s; that software runs through a mainframe from the 1970s.

The software program, COBOL, is currently part of about a dozen states' unemployment processing based on a survey carried out by tech publication, The Verge. In at least three states -- Connecticut, Kansas, and New Jersey -- officials publicly sought help from volunteers familiar with COBOL as many younger programmers are not as familiar with it.

"It's been an interesting time for IT. I started out as a COBOL programmer so I kind of feel their pain," said Lori Rodas, an information technology instructor at Madison College.

Rodas said, while old, COBOL is still an effective program. Financial institutions still frequently use it and, according to a Reuters report, 95 percent of ATM swipes rely on COBOL code.

Rodas said COBOL can work most effectively when running through updated hardware. In the DWD, however, it's running through that mainframe from the '70s.

"Having an older mainframe would definitely inhibit some of the things you'd be able to do," Rodas said.

While other states sought the expertise of seasoned programmed who cut their teeth on COBOL, Emily Savard, a program and policy analyst at DWD said the agency does not believe that would make much of a difference in Wisconsin.

"Even if we did have those retired programmers come in, we are only able to program for one thing at a time, one system at a time, because of how antiquated our system is," Savard said.

Savard refers to various state and federal measures DWD programmers have had to write into the state's system. From waiving the one-week waiting period, to allowing people like self-employed entrepreneurs to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Savard said the state's tech infrastructure only allows programmers to implement one new program or change at a time.

"If we were to try to, say, implement all the different CARES Act programs at one time, something would break," Savard said. "It wouldn't work."

Rodas said it would help for states to invest in upgraded software and hardware, but acknowledged it would come at a steep price and would likely be a years-long process.

"For the sheer number crunching COBOL does, and the amount of systems it's integrated with, it takes a lot of time," Rodas said.

Applications Still Pouring In

According to DWD records, the agency received more than 26,000 applications for unemployment insurance benefits last week. As of May 16, the agency reported receiving more than two million weekly claims; more than 675,000 claims were still unpaid.

Savard said DWD has brought in a total of about 1,300 new staff to help with the processing of claims. That includes a call center operated by an outside vendor who has a contract with DWD; Savard said the call center went live last Wednesday.

DWD is also expanding the hours during which people can call to finish submitting claims. Previously, the lines were open between 7:30 am and 3:30 pm; Savard said the lines will now be open from 7 am to 5 pm but warned it may take a few days for the call operation to run at full strength.

The DWD website now asks people to call within a reserved window based on their last initial.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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