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COBOL programming language behind Iowa’s unemployment system over 60 years old
Under the last coronavirus stimulus package signed into law late last year, each state was responsible for implementing federal unemployment extensions for people who lost their jobs in the pandemic.
The longer a state took, the longer some residents went without the extra benefits - 'barely making ends meet” in some cases.
As Iowa Workforce Development spent over a month making 'programming changes” to implement the extensions, the state agency had to cope with updating a computer programming language invented more than 60 years ago and no longer taught at many universities.
Iowa is among many states relying on COBOL for its unemployment system, a spokeswoman from Iowa Workforce Development confirmed. Other states using COBOL, which was invented in 1959, include New Jersey, Kansas and Oklahoma, according to media reports.
Despite the month it took to accomplish those programming changes, Iowa's reliance on COBOL hasn't been an issue during the pandemic, said Workforce Development spokeswoman Molly Elder.
'Although the technology language is older, we do have a sufficient number of developers and this has not been a cause for issues,” Elder said in an email to The Gazette.
Nonetheless, Iowa was one of the last five states to implement the federal extensions, according to information from the online tracker unemploymentpua.com.
Iowa Workforce Development declined an interview request to talk further about the agency's use of COBOL.
'COBOL is one of the earliest programming languages developed that gained wide usage,” said Dennis Brylow, a computer science professor at Marquette University.
Brylow said the programming language was 'a lot more English-y” and conversational than other programs, causing it to become popular in the early 1960s. There's an 'excellent” chance an insurance company, for instance, would still have a portion of its business relying on COBOL code, he said.
The age of the programming language alone isn't a problem if it's kept up to date, Brylow said.
'It's not dead. It's not like writing official documents in Latin. It's just a little more arcane,” Brylow said. 'When you got somebody in the driver's seat who knows what they're doing and understands the program, it remains a very powerful language that runs quickly and securely and does what it's supposed to do.”
But problems occur when organizations don't modernize the code.
'If you aren't staying current, then the software ceases to work as well as it did when it was first deployed,” Brylow told The Gazette.
Unlike Iowa, other states report significant shortcomings with their COBOL-run systems.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said in an April news conference the state was looking for volunteers familiar with the old COBOL language.
When the IRS and many states needed programmers to update the 'creaky, old COBOL code that nobody's touched in 20 years,” Brylow said that became a problem.
'They realized that all of their COBOL programmers have retired or died,” the computer science professor said.
At the same time, many universities do not any more teach COBOL extensively, if at all, resulting in 'very, very few brand-new COBOL programmers.”
'It's not really a good application to pick if you're going to build a brand-new application,” Brylow said. 'Universities don't really want to teach it, and students don't typically want to do the coursework in it.”
Some states have tried modernizing their systems and have hit snags. Kansas was in the process of updating its system when coronavirus derailed those efforts, according to an April article from Wichita, Kan., station KAKE-TV.
Not far from Iowa, former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle attempted to overhaul the unemployment system there before halting the project in 2007 because of unexpectedly high costs and delays, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Wisconsin will try again after its state legislature passed a bill last week allowing the state to find a company to work with. The law did not give any funds for the project, though.
The state of Iowa in February signed a $50 million contract with California-based Workday for implementation of new software to manage the state's finances.
Gloria Van Rees, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Chief Information Officer, said Workday will not handle unemployment payments, however.
Brylow said completely switching an existing system from COBOL to another programming language is far from a perfect solution.
'When you see something that needs just a few tweaks and it's a huge, tremendous system that they spent years building, it's a huge expense and actually kind of dangerous to try to totally re-implement that in a new programming language,” Brylow said.
The challenges come as a historically high number of people have filed for unemployment during the pandemic.
At a peak in May, more than 200,000 Iowans filed unemployment claims in a week. It was higher than the worst weeks of the previous three economic recessions combined. At the same time, the virus forced Iowa Workforce Development to shutter IowaWORKS offices.
When the agency posted on Facebook last week about a new callback feature for those waiting on hold at least six minutes, over 160 people commented, mostly about problems with their jobless claims and the state agency's lack of answers.
The agency did not say how many people were affected by the month of 'programming changes.” However, in the first week after the extensions began, the state issued about $24 million more in federal unemployment benefits than in the previous week, according to data from the agency's weekly news releases.
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