PAI: The people vs the computer

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PAI: The people vs the computer

Sun, 06/06/2021 - 3:06pm -- tim

by Julie Lowell, Public Assets Institute Good government serves its people and puts their needs first. But unemployment insurance policy changes this year that would have helped unemployed Vermonters were stymied by a 40-year-old computer system.

In non-pandemic times, workers who qualify for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits receive up to 57 percent of their wages. A federal benefit boost is helping them make ends meet during the pandemic but is set to end in early September. So legislators brainstormed several UI benefit changes that would start in September.

But regardless of lawmakers’ proposals—increasing the percent of wages people receive or targeting aid specifically to families with children—the Vermont Department of Labor’s response was the same: The UI mainframe computer was not up to the task. Ultimately the Legislature was able to pass a $25-a-week benefit increase for all UI recipients that the computer will be able to handle. However, this wasn’t legislators’ first choice, and the decision was not driven by recipients’ needs.

This mainframe problem is not new. The current UI computer system was built in the early 1980s and uses a now-antiquated language that few computer programmers know. Starting in the early 2000s, many states including Vermont began to modernize inflexible UI systems. In 2014 Vermont took advantage of federal funding and embarked on an interstate partnership to update the “old, difficult to maintain” system. The partnership ultimately failed, however, and the work that was supposed to be done by 2018 was never completed.

Now the state is awash in federal relief dollars, funding that can be used for UI improvements. The Legislature has ordered a review of Vermont’s UI benefit system and a report by December 2021 to include suggestions for upgrading the mainframe. And the Department of Labor has $3.5 million in its fiscal 2022 budget for phase one of their new four-phase modernization plan. This leaves the state in a good position to finally fund and implement a new, people-centered UI system in the near future.

Vermont is one of just 10 states that haven’t modernized their UI systems. And we continue to deal with the consequences: the failure to implement policies that would improve Vermonters’ wellbeing.

Maybe next year the people will be finally oust the unruly computer and have some hope that their needs actually will come first.

Public Assets Institute. Montpelier. 6.4.2021 https://publicassets.org