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Decades-old unemployment systems can’t handle record demand

More than 22 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in recent weeks due to the novel coronavirus. And those record numbers are taxing decades-old unemployment systems in states across the U.S., many which use a legacy programming language called COBOL. State governments are now trying to find more programmers qualified to fix the systems. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    From a lack of ventilators to nurses wearing garbage bags for protection, the country was not fully equipped to face the coronavirus. And while most of America is now well aware of the deficiencies in the medical fight, the pandemic is shining a light on several other gaps. In some states, as millions head to websites to file for unemployment or relief benefits, the systems are buckling under record demand. That's in part because some state governments and unemployment systems use a decades old coding system. So where do you find the programmers who speak that language. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has more.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The number of Americans who now find themselves suddenly without work in the past four weeks can be hard to fathom. Twenty two million people — about one-in-eight working adults — are now out of a job.

    And this is weighing heavy on state unemployment agencies. In New Jersey, the unemployment office saw a 1600% jump in claims in just one week — so many that Governor Phil Murphy recently put out a call for programmers to help support the state's unemployment computer system.

  • New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy:

    We have systems that are 40 plus years old, and there'll be lots of postmortems. And one of them on our list will be, 'How did we get here where we literally needed COBOL programmers?'

  • Christopher Booker:

    What is COBOL? It's Short for Common Business-Oriented Language. Co-created by Grace Hopper 61 years ago — the computer code was first developed when Steve Jobs was a four-year-old and computers took up the whole side of a room.

    Many of the world's programmers have moved past COBOL. But it's still around in banking and manufacturing, and in many state governments.

  • Bill Hinshaw:

    COBOL fits into almost every government system or agency.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Bill Hinshaw is the founder of the Texas based Cobol Cowboys – named after the Clint Eastwood movie Space Cowboys in which NASA brings back retired astronauts to help fix a broken Russian satellite about to crash into Earth.

  • Space Cowboys Movie Trailer:

    The only men for the job. Is anyone still alive who can fix this thing?….Are the boys! I cant fill up a space shuttle with geriatrics!

  • Christopher Booker:

    Hinshaw's group is a collection of 350 freelance COBOL programmers – who work all over the world with the software.

  • Bill Hinshaw:

    Today there's by up two hundred and twenty billion with a B lines of COBOL in use. With another 150 billion with a B that's being added every year.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Hinshaw stresses, the problem is not with COBOL itself – The problem is with how states have failed to maintain and upgrade their backend systems. COBOL is still common in the financial world – an estimated 95% of all ATM transactions – run on the latest hardware and software – but have COBOL running in the background.

  • Bill Hinshaw :

    Most organizations still use COBOL. They may have some of the new technology on the front end, dealing with the internet and the iPhones, etc., but to actually process a new transaction, it's a marriage between the new technology, and the uh old technology.

  • Christopher Booker:

    New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy was asking about COBOL programming as it relates to their unemployment system. Help me understand where COBOL would fit into a government system like that.

  • Bill Hinshaw:

    What the state of New Jersey has, it has encountered is they're running with 40 year old machines and 40 year old software… the older hardware basically had one processor, i.e. a brain and the newer technology, hardware and software allows for multiple processors or multiple brains. Therefore, if one brain gets overloaded, it can share the work with another brain and another brain. So, basically, the fact is that it's older hardware and software, and unfortunately, it takes a crisis like this to point out that the systems can be overloaded.

  • Christopher Booker:

    So has the state of new jersey sounded the alarm and called in the Cobol Cowboys? No, not yet anyway. But New Jersey is note alone. Kansas and Connecticut are also struggling.

  • Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly:

    "So many of our Departments of Labor across the country are still on the COBOLT [SIC] system. You know very, very old technology," and then when you talk about what was it, 12 times as many applications coming in at one time, 877,000 phone calls in one day, thats going to overwhelm a good system much less the kind of system that we were stuck with.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Do you anticipate that the Cobol Cowboys will be very busy in the coming weeks and months?

  • Bill Hinshaw:

    I expect we may get some business out of the state governments. I hope we won't be. I hope things are running that well for that. But if we're if we're needed. We will be there.

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