Have State Unemployment Insurance Systems Recovered from COVID-19?
From GovTech, March 1, 2021 (excerpt)
…Hawaii once had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. But COVID-19 devastated the state’s tourism-based economy, putting Hawaii among the states hit hardest by unemployment over the last year. Adjusting to this new status quo has been grueling for the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.
“Unemployment was at 2.4 percent prior to the pandemic hitting,” said Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, director of DLIR. “Our staffing here at the unemployment insurance office was at our lowest staffing ever because the U.S. Department of Labor funds you on workload …. Once you don’t have a baseline staff that you can count on, ramping up people to understand these requirements and these statutes is very difficult and takes time. So when you have an emergency like this, you don’t have those subject matter experts available.”
To make matters worse, the technological backbone of the state’s UI program is an antiquated mainframe system that runs on a Natural database language. According to reports from Honolulu Civil Beat, thousands of claimants expressed frustration with the unresponsive UI system. Some even sent death threats to then-DLIR Director Scott Murakami, who ended up resigning in August.
“Our CPUs just reached their limit,” Perreira-Eustaquio said. “It was 100 percent capacity due to the workload, and so we had to change our priorities in how we accepted data and how our front-end applications talked to the mainframe to free up some processing time so that the mainframe could work more efficiently. We streamlined the code in our UI system as best as we possibly could to reduce the traffic to the mainframe.”
One tweak to the system proved to be “something that we should have stayed away from,” Perreira-Eustaquio said. The state created an online form that allowed claimants to file their claims on a 24-hour basis outside of the stressed mainframe. Unfortunately, the form bypassed fraud-preventing validation processes for personal information, which led to a lot of “rubbish data” that had to be cleaned out on the back end.
More successful was the replicated database that was developed to reduce hits to the mainframe and speed up claim processing. After this change, Hawaii went from taking around 1,000 to about 10,000 claim certifications per hour.
A nagging limitation persists, however. The outdatedness of the legacy system makes federal programs like Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation and Extended Benefits a chore for everyone involved.
“This is a very fragile system, and we wanted to make sure that we balanced being able to service our community as well as get these applications up and running,” she explained. “Both applications are automated on the front end, so claimants can come on, they can file through the automated process, but once it hits our mainframe, everything’s manual. That manual process is a strain on the staff here as well as a strain on the community, because since each individual claim is manual and each one has to be touched prior to a claim being paid out, it backs up the system in every way.”
Before the health crisis, Hawaii thought its UI program would start moving toward the cloud during summer 2020. The state was $1 million away from being able to pay Idaho to migrate Hawaii’s UI data to Idaho’s cloud-based system, according to the Honolulu Civil Beat. The pandemic put an end to that idea.
“I can tell you that Idaho has decided to move on, and they won’t be providing assistance to states like they had anticipated prior to the pandemic …. They were great partners, and they would have continued to be great partners if we did go down that path, but this year has changed everything,” Perreira-Eustaquio said.
Hawaii still has its eye on the cloud in 2021. Perreira-Eustaquio is hopeful, notwithstanding the drastically different economy caused by COVID-19.
“Yes, [the] budget’s very tight,” she admitted. “The governor announced furloughs here in Hawaii. So we are seeing tough times in Hawaii right now, but I think the legislators understand the importance of upgrading the mainframe.”…
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