The United States is currently experiencing an enormous surge in unemployment claims as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 16.8 unemployment claims were filed between March 15th and April 4th, approximately 13 percent of the US workforce, with many experts expecting further unemployment to continue.
This unprecedented uptick in unemployment has put a strain on many states in dealing with processing and paying these unemployment claims. While some states such as California outsource their IT needs to third-party vendors, others rely on staff to handle this large surge.
According to The Verge, for at least twelve states, the unemployment claims have proven difficult to handle. That is due in large part to an outdated coding language, COBOL. In Colorado, for example, there was only one full-time programmer maintaining the system prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Rhode Island currently has three COBOL programmers. In fact, Colorado was only months away from migrating to a new environment and await from COBOL before the outbreak.
In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy is calling for more COBOL programmers to help maintain the unemployment system. Unfortunately, as COBOL experienced its peak in popularity in the 1970s, many COBOL programmers have retired out of the market. By the 2000s, COBOL started to phase out of university lessons, and today it is rarely taught to computer engineering students.
Apart from the lack of knowledge in maintaining systems running on COBOL, many of the systems went undocumented, and many more were built on outdated hardware. Given the urgency of the pandemic, it’s proven difficult to maintain, let alone upgrade, these systems.
This story should prove as a reminder to all IT pros about the necessity of updating legacy systems. While band-aids and quick fixes can last when things are going well, strain on difficult systems can prove fatal to a company’s bottom line. In this case, with unemployed citizens receiving checks late or not at all, it could even prove fatal in general.