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Sen. Ron Wyden proposes $500 million to fix US unemployment systems

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The coronavirus pandemic has overwhelmed these systems

Photo by Erin Schaff for The Verge

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) put out a new bill Wednesday that would overhaul the US’s crumbling unemployment benefits systems.

Over the last year, outdated state unemployment systems have kept jobless Americans from accessing the increased benefits approved by the federal government to curb the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Wyden’s new $500 million plan would create standardized tools for states that choose to adopt them. The Department of Labor would be in charge of creating these tools with the help of outside tech experts.

“While enhanced jobless benefits have enabled millions and millions of families to pay the rent and buy groceries, many states have been unable to get benefits out the door in a timely manner,” Wyden said in a statement Wednesday. “I have heard story after story from Oregonians who have spent months trying to get their jobless benefits. That’s completely unacceptable when families are depending on these benefits to keep a roof over their heads.”

Wyden’s bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Mark Warner (D-VA), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV).

State unemployment offices are in charge of maintaining their own benefits systems. Some states choose to build their own while others, like California, have contracts with outside vendors. Many of these unemployment systems were built nearly decades ago in ancient coding languages that aren’t frequently taught in school and are widely known by programmers who are quickly aging out of the workforce.

Last summer, a Verge investigation found that at least 12 state systems, like those in Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, and Kansas, were partially coded in COBOL, an over 40-year-old coding language very few programmers learn anymore. This makes it difficult for these systems to be fixed when they melt down under the pressure of requests caused by the pandemic. Only one COBOL programmer maintained Colorado’s system before the coronavirus outbreak, according to The Verge.

States like Colorado continue to face mounting problems with their unemployment systems as some unemployed Coloradans have gone weeks and months without payments. Earlier this week, protestors marched on Colorado’s Department of Labor due to the faulty system, according to The Denver Post. To fix its issues, Colorado launched a new system last month called “MyUI+,” which had a rough rollout after some people said they were unable to create accounts for the site.

Congress continues to negotiate its next economic stimulus package as a result of the pandemic. Democrats are looking to approve this latest package by mid-March to ensure that heightened unemployment benefits continue through the summer.