Why have some states been able to move quickly to pay out the new $300-a-week unemployment benefit, while others expect the process to take weeks? In a word: technology.
On the surface, the benefit looks like the $600-a-week federal supplement that ended in July, just cut in half. But there are subtle differences: The program has a different funding source (the Federal Emergency Management Agency instead of the Labor Department) and new restrictions (people receiving less than $100 a week in regular benefits don’t qualify).
Those kinds of adjustments would be trivial on a modern computer system. But thanks to years of underinvestment, many state unemployment systems are running on computers that are anything but modern.
In Oklahoma, for example, the unemployment system runs on a 40-year-old mainframe computer that turns even minor adjustments into a major programming task. As a result, even though the state was among the first to apply for the funds, it doesn’t expect to begin paying the new benefit until late September.
”The fact that I’m working with a mainframe from 1978 to process claims is just crippling to the agency,” said Shelley Zumwalt, interim executive director of the agency that oversees Oklahoma’s unemployment system. “We are just holding that system together with masking tape and chewing gum.”
When the pandemic hit, Arizona, too, was stuck with archaic computer systems. It built a new system virtually from scratch to begin paying out federally funded emergency benefits, and it was among the last states to do so.
But the approach left Arizona better able to handle curveballs like the new $300 benefit. Last week it became the first state to begin paying the supplement.
“Through that chaos, we created a pandemic unemployment system,” said Michael Wisehart, director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security.