seasonality rates in the nation," Nelson said. The state's unemployment rate peaks in mid-January, during the state's harsh winters when construction and other outdoor work slows. "When we have the seasonality rates that we have, it's hard enough. In a recession, that pretty much doubles and it hits fast. There's no way we could ramp up for that kind of volume," she said. "If people use the online application, it's not as staff-intensive. That's one of our goals because our funding was flat and now it's falling."

With the online application system, an out-of-work Minnesotan can learn about UI entitlements and complete an entire application online. Applicants receive payments weekly through direct deposit; unemployed workers used to be paid every two weeks.

Kathleen Murray was an unemployment counselor in St. Paul for more than three years. When funding for her job was cut, she suddenly found herself in the same position as the people she once helped. Murray turned to UI while she explored new career options. The new online system made applying to UI simpler, she said, than it had been for those she previously counseled.

The detailed online help section has been just that for Murray - extremely helpful. Without the online system, she said, it would take longer to get a phone response.

"Everything is there. I go on once a week, and it takes less than five minutes," she said. The biggest time-saver for her has been the online weekly update, where she confirms she is still out of work and looking for a job.

The system is available to online applicants during daytime hours on weekdays, but system maintenance requires some downtime when it can't handle applications, Nelson said. "To have a system that was both batch ready and online ready, it added so much complexity and cost that we didn't think it was worth it," she said. Nelson hopes to make the online UI program available on Sundays soon.

The employers' side of the site, which is in less demand, runs 24/7. Fraud detection is built into both the employers' and applicants' sides of the system, Nelson said.

 
Increased Usage
Since the new system went online, the number of Minnesotans taking advantage of the UI program has increased.

"Never underestimate how difficult it is for people to change," Nelson said. "A lot of old applicants and employers said, 'What was wrong with the old system?' When you explain to them that it costs three times as much money to process that piece of paper, and that you can get your work done in one place rather than needing to handle all these pieces of paper, they're a little more appreciative."

What has made Minnesota UI's technology integration so successful, Nelson said, is that it specifically targets the unique needs of Minnesota's UI Program.

"Even though we changed all of our technology, we wanted to make sure business was driving the technology and that our business practices were going to change," she said. "We wanted to ensure we weren't just going to apply new technology to the old cow path."

With the new tech-heavy system in place, the Minnesota Unemployment Insurance Program reached its goal of doing more with less - but that wasn't the case during the system's early planning days.

In the late 1990s, Weidenbach, with DEED Legal Director Lee Nelson, began selling state legislators on a budget to make an electronic overhaul of the UI program happen.

Nelson was hired in 2001 to lead the new project, and to develop a strategic plan and solicit bids for developing the new UI system. Her early tasks included sketching out a rough timeline and articulating expectations for the new system: "For the next four to

Patrick Michels  |  Contributing Writer
Patrick Michels is based in San Francisco and Austin, Texas. He writes for Government Technology, Texas Technology and Emergency Management magazines.