In the past week, I’ve received a number of calls from local workers who have been displaced due to COVID-19. They are worried about their future, they have bills to pay, they have been laid off or furloughed and they are trying to file for unemployment insurance. But they can’t get through the system. This uncertain time endangers people’s well-being, threatens bread winners who have put their time in for 30 years who are facing the possibility of not making ends meet for the first time and scares parents wanting to keep the lights on in uncertain times.
This is why I supported the Legislature’s effort to suspend restrictions on unemployment insurance at the state level and why Congress took the extraordinary step of putting additional resources into weekly unemployment benefits. However, there has been such an unprecedented number of claims and call volume – 1.2 million registered calls in the state of Kansas on one day last week – that the process and technology haven’t been able to handle them all. To ease the administrative burden temporarily, Gov. Kelly has lifted some of the requirements that don’t make sense at this point. One of those is to waive the one-week waiting period, another is to temporarily get rid of the seeking work requirement.
I’ve been in contact with the secretary of labor and the state chief information technology officer (CITO) about the issues and they are on top of it. From my understanding, the new labor secretary came into the Department of Labor last March and quickly realized we had some big technology issues in that agency. She had inherited systems from the previous administration, many of which were still on 30-plus year old mainframe technology. In a legislative research study I initiated in my first term during the Brownback administration, this independent group identified that 70% of the state’s technology infrastructure was past its useful life. The prior years of the Brownback/Colyer administration didn’t have funding available in the DOL due to misguided tax plans, and with their cutting of unemployment benefits such as in the HOPE act, that administration’s secretary of labor apparently had prioritized other things over updated technology and processes.
The current secretary of labor began assessing what it would take to upgrade the various systems. The Department of Labor had begun the upgrade path over the last nine months and began documenting requirements as the first phase. They also consulted with other states with similar situations that were going through upgrades of these types of systems, such as Mississippi and Idaho. The department estimated the upgrades would cost $72 million over the life of the project, with the first priority being the unemployment insurance system that would cost about half of that total.
The new chief information technology officer came in last fall and also began an architectural review of systems across the state. She was briefed early on that the Department of Labor was on the path of looking at upgrade options. Unfortunately, they had not yet requested this appropriation as they were still getting plans together when the pandemic hit. We are now in a situation where the department is using some of its emergency funding to apply a series of needed bandages, some written in the original COBOL programming language, to the older system. The CITO has brought back a number of technical team members from other agencies who had some experience with the unemployment insurance system, as well as some private industry consultants and a full team from the mainframe contract group.
As I write this in fact, IT has started applying fixes on some issues that should help with the ability to submit claims.
Technology, when used with transparency and thoughtfulness, is an enabler for more efficient government. While it’s regrettable to spend resources on putting Band-Aids on the old system, these are necessary steps to bridge our current crisis that impacts our workers. I commend the DOL for its efforts. They recognize that in these circumstances, the end users – the vast volume of applicants – just want to make sure their form is submitted and that if they are eligible, they will get their emergency funds. When a website does not allow them to submit their information, that makes these end users very nervous. That said, I’m assured that even with this delay, people will receive what they are due and that will be retroactive to the appropriate date to when they were supposed to receive their assistance. After this crisis has passed, we as a state need to invest in thoughtfully architected technology, as these systems and infrastructure have been neglected for years at the state level.
These are uncertain times, and I am here to assist as I can. Feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if I can help. We can get through this together.
Rep. Jeff Pittman represents the 41st District.