Update: Assistance programs causing strain on states’ computer systems

Updated to include additional media reports and reader comments regarding states’ continued lag in updating computers to handle a Congressional extension on assistance benefits.

Congressional extensions on assistance benefits are causing problems with state computer systems, nationwide. Antiquated software and confusing federal legislation underlies bigger administrative issues, as federal and state agencies deal with a skyrocketing amount of claims.

According to numbers from the Office of Management and Budget, unemployment claims are up over $80 billion since last year, a 205 percent increase. And food stamp (SNAP) claims have climbed by nearly 10 million over the past two years, an increase in program spending of $4.3 billion from 2008.

As outlined in a recent Federal Times story, these two programs represent merely a fraction of the costs to the federal government in the form of assistance claims. Agencies such as the Social Security Administration and Labor Department have been struggling for years to reduce backlogs, only to be bombarded with millions of more claims in the last year. In a report filed this weekend, the New York Times said food stamp applications were expanding at a pace of 20,000 people a day

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signed legislation to extend unemployment benefits by 14 weeks, 20 weeks for those living in states with unemployment rates above 8.5 percent. The extension is generally for those who have been without a job for 79 weeks. But it’s not that simple for those implementing the legislation at the state level.

This extension comes after 26 weeks of regular benefits have been exhausted, 33 weeks of Congress’ first emergency extension have been used and anywhere from 13 to 20 additional weeks of an individual state’s unemployment extended benefits run out. A recent AP story headline reads, “Jobless in RI can now get benefits up to 99 weeks.”

Given legislative confusion, not to mention diminished staff hours due to declining revenue, states across the country are struggling to get their aging unemployment computer systems up to speed.

From Maine to South Carolina and Kentucky to California, states have reported computer glitches and other setbacks with regards to unemployment benefits, food stamp claims and other forms of federal assistance – many of whom are operating systems several decades old. Each time Congress enacts an extension of unemployment benefits, the states must rewrite hundreds of separate software programs that screen for eligibility, account for payments, recalculate benefits, and incorporate other possible legal changes.

In Massachusetts, Labor and Workforce Development officials told the Boston Globe, the reprogramming needed after benefits are extended takes six to eight weeks, “plus another week for testing.”

California’s jobless system has been the recent subject of scrutiny, because the state receiving $60 million through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to upgrade its 23-year-old computer system. Critics argue a $66 million upgrade in 2002 was wasted and that little has been done to actually automate claims processing. Dale Jablonski, deputy director of information technology at the California Employment Development Department, told the AP rebuilding the unemployment system, which processes more than any other state, was harder due to increased claims. “It’s like rebuilding an airplane while it’s in the air,” he said. “It’s not easy under normal volumes. It’s even harder under high volumes.”

Yesterday, Pennsylvania’s unemployment system suffered an outage leaving those looking to file claims over the Internet stranded. Department spokesman Christopher Manlove told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “The online unemployment compensation filing system experienced a technical failure, which disrupted the initial and continued biweekly claims filed via the Internet,” but that the system should be up and running by Monday morning.

North Carolina’s high unemployment rate has stuck the state with $1.4 billion in debt, the Charlotte News Observer reported today. The state has had to borrow up to $20 million per day at some points this year and totals are expected to be $2 billion by the end of the year, officials said.

Neighboring South Carolina has had a string of issues outlining administrative and technical trouble with the state Employment Security Commission. “Funding the benefits is not an issue,” Jimmy Jones, ESC assistant deputy executive director, the Greenville News. “Computer programming is the issue.” According to the report, the commission’s antiquated computer system isn’t set up to allow payments to jobless workers who have been unemployed for more than 79 weeks. The 23-year-old system is “not designed to make payments that easily” and has to be programmed to allow the payments, he said.

In Kentucky, about 10,000 unemployed won’t get their checks until the state finishes reprogramming its computer system, the Louisville Courier-Journal reports. Officials said they hope to have their systems processing extended payments within ten days.

Problematic still, are situations like those in Nevada where the state sent more in unemployment benefits that it should have. A Reno Gazette-Journal report found that thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits will have to be paid-back to the state. Agency officials said that delays in notifying claimants of problems is due to the 30-year-old computer system now in use. They told the Gazette-Journal a $35 million upgrade of the system will be completed within four years, but in the meantime they will look for ways to more quickly notify claimants of disputes.

Since this story ran Tuesday, CivSource readers and media reports continue to comment on the situation facing many states’ unemployment insurance benefits computer systems. Although a few states have managed to change the software code needed to extend unemployment benefits to the federal date, many more have not. Too often states’ are running antiquated computer systems to deliver their most critical services. In this kind of economy, when so many depend on the quick transfer of benefits to survive, it’s vital for lawmakers to understand their bureaucrats and constituents.

  • In Pennsylvania: It appears that after an initial problem over the weekend, their benefits system is up and running. Most states are not sharing in the success.
  • In Maine: One reader said the state “cannot enter extension apps until system is updated. Not sure when that will be complete.” Another reader commented that before the glitches, wait time between application and benefit delivery in Maine was expected to be around 10 days – now “we are told that they can’t even input our application info until they update the system, and the applications we all sent in around 11/23 won’t be processed until at least next week,” the reader said. “I don’t know why they didn’t tell us this in the first place, instead of giving us false hope that we might be able to pay bills soon.”
  • In Ohio: The Columbus Dispatch reported that payments did not end up in an unknown amount of direct deposit accounts. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services also had problems with the amount of calls coming in, though Department officials were hopeful that the glitch would be fixed no later than yesterday.
  • In California: A recently publicized incident involving $60 million to upgrade their benefits management system garnered some criticism from readers, and a local television report found that nearly 250,000 unemployed in CA would be without checks for an unknown period. Originally due out next week, officials have acknowledged that date will not be met. Loree Levy told CBS-13 TV, “Well these new extensions passed by Congress have been a real challenge for states to implement.”

Next week, CivSource will be talking with an executive from the private sector to discuss how states might begin to address this and other problems with their antiquated computer systems, in times of tight budgets.

If you have reports of similar instances going on in your state, let us know. If you are having problems filing for assistance benefits or if your agency is being underfunded and overwhelmed write us – civsource {at} civsourceonline {dot} com – or leave a comment and we’ll continue to update the story as it progresses.

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