COBOL, Programming, and Coding
States have been starved of modernization funding for years Just a month ago, Peter Cassidy was working at an airport in the small ski town of Montrose, Colorado. But as the novel coronavirus trickled into his county, Cassidy and his co-workers watched as the list of inbound flights got shorter and shorter. On March 17th, he was laid off. The next morning, like millions of other Americans, he punched his information into an online unemployment form. But when he clicked submit, he was met with an error: Colorado’s system was overloaded and he’d need to file again. For three days, Cassidy tried everything: staying up late to see if the system would start working, waking up at 3AM before other people had logged on. Finally, he gave up and filed over the phone. Colorado — like most states and territories across the country — is experiencing record unemployment numbers. But the state’s unemployment system is built on aging software running on a decades-old coding language known as COBOL. Over the years, COBOL programmers have aged out of the workforce, forcing states to scramble for fluent coders in times of national crisis. A survey by The Verge found that at least 12 states still use COBOL in some capacity in their unemployment systems. Alaska, Connecticut, California, Iowa, Kansas, and Rhode Island all run on the aging language. According to a spokesperson from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the state was actually only a month or two away from “migrating into a new environment and away from COBOL,” before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. As the pandemic has millions out of work, these systems have become a barrier for the recently unemployed. The federal labor department reported 16.8 million unemployment claims were filed between March 15th and April 4th. That’s approximately 13 percent of the US’s workforce, outstripping even the height of the 2008 financial crash, where unemployment topped off at around 10 percent. As more stores and businesses shutter as a result of the pandemic, the US’s unemployment systems are experiencing an unprecedented amount of traffic and requests — and states don’t have the resources to maintain them. Some state governments, like California, have contracts with outside vendors. California’s Employment Development Department has long-standing contracts with IT vendors that are “well-versed in the programming applications of COBOL,” according to a department spokesperson. Others rely on their own staff programmers, like New Jersey, Colorado, and Rhode Island. “We currently have 3 COBOL programmers, and like other states, our system is undoubtedly taxed by the increase in claim volume,” a spokesperson for Rhode Island’s Department of Labor and Training told The Verge. Only one full-time programmer maintained Colorado’s COBOL system before the novel coronavirus outbreak, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment told The Verge. “We are bringing another back to help for just the pandemic programming.” Earlier this month, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy made a plea for more COBOL programmers to help maintain the state’s unemployment system during a press conference. “Literally, we have systems that are 40 years-plus old, and there’ll be lots of post-mortems,” Murphy said earlier this month. “And one of them on our list will be how did we get here where we literally needed COBOL programmers?” Under a historic $2 trillion stimulus package passed last month, » Read More
Like to keep reading?
This article first appeared on theverge.com. If you'd like to keep reading, follow the white rabbit.