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Unemployment checks are being held up by a coding language almost nobody knows

States have been starved of modernization funding for years

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Just a month ago, Peter Cassidy was working at an airport in the small ski town of Montrose, Colorado. But as the novel coronavirus trickled into his county, Cassidy and his co-workers watched as the list of inbound flights got shorter and shorter. On March 17th, he was laid off. The next morning, like millions of other Americans, he punched his information into an online unemployment form.

But when he clicked submit, he was met with an error: Colorado’s system was overloaded and he’d need to file again.

For three days, Cassidy tried everything: staying up late to see if the system would start working, waking up at 3AM before other people had logged on. Finally, he gave up and filed over the phone.

Colorado — like most states and territories across the country — is experiencing record unemployment numbers. But the state’s unemployment system is built on aging software running on a decades-old coding language known as COBOL. Over the years, COBOL programmers have aged out of the workforce, forcing states to scramble for fluent coders in times of national crisis. 

A survey by The Verge found that at least 12 states still use COBOL in some capacity in their unemployment systems. Alaska, Connecticut, California, Iowa, Kansas, and Rhode Island all run on the aging language. According to a spokesperson from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the state was actually only a month or two away from “migrating into a new environment and away from COBOL,” before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

As the pandemic has millions out of work, these systems have become a barrier for the recently unemployed. The federal labor department reported 16.8 million unemployment claims were filed between March 15th and April 4th. That’s approximately 13 percent of the US’s workforce, outstripping even the height of the 2008 financial crash, where unemployment topped off at around 10 percent. As more stores and businesses shutter as a result of the pandemic, the US’s unemployment systems are experiencing an unprecedented amount of traffic and requests — and states don’t have the resources to maintain them.

“Literally, we have systems that are 40 years-plus old”

Some state governments, like California, have contracts with outside vendors. California’s Employment Development Department has long-standing contracts with IT vendors that are “well-versed in the programming applications of COBOL,” according to a department spokesperson. Others rely on their own staff programmers, like New Jersey, Colorado, and Rhode Island. 

“We currently have 3 COBOL programmers, and like other states, our system is undoubtedly taxed by the increase in claim volume,” a spokesperson for Rhode Island’s Department of Labor and Training told The Verge. 

Only one full-time programmer maintained Colorado’s COBOL system before the novel coronavirus outbreak, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment told The Verge. “We are bringing another back to help for just the pandemic programming.”

Earlier this month, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy made a plea for more COBOL programmers to help maintain the state’s unemployment system during a press conference. “Literally, we have systems that are 40 years-plus old, and there’ll be lots of post-mortems,” Murphy said earlier this month. “And one of them on our list will be how did we get here where we literally needed COBOL programmers?”

Under a historic $2 trillion stimulus package passed last month, unemployed workers are entitled to an additional $600 per week on top of their state’s existing benefits. But much of this additional support is stuck in limbo as unemployed workers struggle to access the online system that will deliver their checks. State unemployment systems across the country are now stretched to the breaking point as they handle more claims and distribute more money than ever before. And unemployment systems are crashing all across the country.

Over sixty years ago, nearly every computer manufacturer developed and used its own programming language, making it difficult to upgrade systems with new hardware or manage basic tasks across machines from different companies. 

To fix this issue, a group of academics and computer programmers, including computing pioneer Grace Hopper, met in 1959 to develop a common business-oriented language, or COBOL. The Defense Department spearheaded the project, and by the 1970s, COBOL was the most widely used programming language for mainframes, or giant computer systems that process large amounts of data quickly. But giant mainframes have largely fallen out of fashion as Apple, Amazon, and Google have begun processing data in the cloud. By the 2000s, computer engineering students began learning more contemporary coding languages that paired well with how Silicon Valley tech companies were operating. COBOL is rarely taught anymore and the programmers fluent in it are quickly approaching retirement age. 

Manufacturers like IBM still offer mainframe systems that are compatible with COBOL and the language continues to make up a large part of the US’s digital infrastructure. But as time passes, more and more COBOL programmers age out of the workforce and younger coders aren’t learning the language in school in order to replace them. Programmers haven’t learned COBOL at universities for decades, with professors and students opting to learn more contemporary languages like JavaScript and Python. 

COBOL remains a reliable language when used by banks and other private sector businesses that can afford to employ all of the older, COBOL-fluent programmers they need and invest in modernizing older COBOL code and additional hardware and processors to compute the data they retrieve. According to Reuters, 43 percent of banking systems are built on COBOL and 95 percent of ATM swipes still rely on the language. Over the last 50 years, COBOL programmers have been pulled out of retirement during times of crisis to ensure that essential computer systems don’t shut down when the country needs them most. Hordes of COBOL coders returned to the workforce during Y2K to ensure that the country’s dated systems wouldn’t rupture as their internal clocks switched over to the new millennium.

But it’s an entirely different story in government. Without additional funding from the federal government, it’s difficult for states to modernize their COBOL code and invest in hardware that can withstand the mounting number of unemployment requests they’re receiving this year.

“It doesn’t really matter what type of code is used as long as you can hire someone to work on it and the tool is delivering,” said Rebecca Williams, a digital services expert at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. 

Still, some COBOL systems were written in ways that make it difficult for fresh faces to update and edit them. When COBOL first came into fashion in the ‘50s, computer science wasn’t regularly taught in academia. Because of this, coders worked and solved problems alone without much formal guidance. COBOL programmers learned their skills on the job and didn’t document much of their process for newcomers. Sometimes, programs were written in large chunks that could break different functions when tinkered with by other programmers approaching the code for the first time.  

“Modernization of mainframe COBOL is like hopping off of your bicycle and jumping onto a Harley Davidson motorcycle”

Part of New Jersey’s problem is that the COBOL software is running on older hardware, said Bill Hinshaw, founder and CEO of COBOL Cowboys, an organization that provides experts in legacy systems. “New machinery is 64-bit with multiple processors or brains. So that if one processor gets overloaded, it starts sharing the work with another processor down the line,” he said.

“Modernization of mainframe COBOL is like hopping off of your bicycle and jumping onto a Harley Davidson motorcycle,” Hinshaw told The Verge. “That’s the type of improvement that you’re going to find.” 

But upgrades or changes seem far out of the realm of possibility for states that have largely been starved of the funding they desperately need from the federal government to even begin their modernization efforts. For the last 25 years, Congress has steadily made cuts to the states’ funding for modernization projects. According to Williams, many government budgets only include enough money for “keeping the lights on.”

Because of this disinvestment, unemployed workers like Cassidy are spending hours of their lives filling out forms, slowing down their ability to receive the benefits they need in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.

“I think it’s a sign of the benign neglect of the systems that serve people in poverty,” said Tracey Patterson, Code for America’s senior director for social safety nets. 

For years, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has penned reports warning the government to update its systems. “As they age, legacy systems can be more costly to maintain, more exposed to cybersecurity risks, and less effective in meeting their intended purpose,” the GAO wrote in a report last June.

In that same report, the GAO outlined ten legacy federal systems in desperate need of optimization. Several of them run on COBOL, which the office referred to as “a programming language that has a dwindling number of people available with the skills needed to support it.” These older systems cost taxpayers around $337 million a year, and most of that goes toward maintenance. 

Private companies like IBM, Google, Deloitte, and Verizon are stepping in to help states maintain their legacy systems. According to OneZero, IBM is offering free COBOL training for programmers across the country looking to help the states run their unemployment insurance systems. In New York, Google and Verizon helped launch a new unemployment website backed by 60 new servers, 1,000 new staff members on the phones, and a new callback feature for people who don’t get through on their own.

“COBOL is the scapegoat”

Investment from private firms could help the system from crumbling for a while, but the states will need new modernization funding for future crises. Last Thursday, President Donald Trump signaled support for a phase-four stimulus package that included funding for infrastructure projects. Now that Congress has approved increased unemployment benefits, they have the chance to boost funding for the systems that get those benefits to the people who need it. 

“Whenever there was a problem with the IT, COBOL is the scapegoat,” Hinshaw said. “IT systems always get the short-end of the stick when it comes to funding.” 

Without sufficient investment in modernization and hardware, the US’s unemployment systems will continue to strain in times of crisis. The stimulus created a high-stakes federal effort to avoid economic calamity over the next few months, but that money could sit in limbo until workers are able to file their claims over their states’ stressed systems.