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Maine Officially Becomes Next State to Join Unemployment Insurance Cloud Consortium

On Dec. 6, the state of Maine migrated the benefits side of its unemployment insurance system to the cloud, joining the four-state consortium ReEmployUSA.

Its migration to the cloud had been planned for years, and when state staffers flipped the proverbial switch at 8 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Wed., Dec. 6, Maine’s new unemployment claims website went live on schedule.

Maine’s go-live event after about five days offline is likely the state’s most visible step toward joining ReEmployUSA, a four-state unemployment insurance (UI) consortium in the cloud that’s spearheaded by Mississippi and includes Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The consortium’s origins are not entirely recent, as it began with the Mississippi Department of Employment Security’s (MDES) development of Access Mississippi (Access MS), the state’s online UI portal, which it supported from 2004 to 2013.

But Mississippi officials said earlier this fall that they believe the four-state partnering is the nation’s first multi-tenant UI system in the cloud. And it's on time.

Officials in Maine are pleased with the deployment, achieved through partnering with Mississippi staffers onsite; Tata Consultancy Services, which handled architecture and coding on Access MS and on ReEmployUSA; and Quality Technology Services, which provided cloud services.

“It’s here. We flipped the switch and the lights came on. In the system, we generally have a little over 300 active users every 15 minutes and it looks like sessions are generally about 20 minutes. And that’s what we thought it would take for people to sign in anyway,” said Laura Hudson, director of communications at the Maine Department of Labor (MDOL).

Those numbers, derived from internal updates every 15 minutes on numbers of users, drop rates, bounce rates and session rates, are partially reflective of the fact that all users are being asked to create new accounts, Hudson said. MDOL will likely issue a news release next week with further data.

In an email, John Feeney, director of the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation for MDOL, described the launch as "very positive" overall, overcoming a "minor issue" with a U.S. Bank interface on Wednesday to send out 1,327 payments totalling $415,345 by close of business.

During its first day live, 3,166 claimants registered for new accounts as required by the new system. The state completed 383 initial claims; certified 3,519 weekly claims; and mailed out 1,239 pieces of correspondence.

The director said the state expects moving UI to the cloud to help it reduce cost, improve security and assist with business continuity and disaster recovery.

The consortium meets Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) compliance standards as well as those set by individual states and the Internal Revenue Service.

Feeney and Patricia O’Brien, deputy bureau director for MDOL, said Maine also expects the new system to provide a more user-friendly experience for residents and staff, some of whom needed six to eight months to become trained on the legacy system.

“We really think that the new system is much more user-friendly, and it really walks people through step by step. We realize that initially, there’s going to be a learning curve, and we’re going to have to get over the learning curve, but ultimately, it’s going to streamline the process because both sides are seeing essentially the same system,” Feeney said in an interview.

O’Brien said Maine’s 25-year-old UI legacy system, which still relied partially on COBOL, had reached retirement age, like many who were familiar with the 1950s-era computer programming language. She said joining ReEmployUSA was an attractive alternative to spending an estimated $80 million to $100 million on a state-specific replacement.

“We got to the point where the IT staff to maintain them, we were facing both very expensive infrastructure costs; and, quite frankly, the state staff skillset was essentially aging out of the workforce with the technology we had,” O’Brien said.

Mohammed Jalaluddin, director of the MDES Office of Technology Support and Innovation, said Maine’s new system should establish, validate and maintain most claims in real time.

“There are a few exceptions where the system will establish the claim offline, but 80 percent, 90 percent of the time they will be able to establish the claim immediately,” he said.

Dale Smith, MDES deputy executive director, said he expects Maine’s new system to go beyond merely improving efficiency to helping identify issues or situations with claims that the state should further investigate.

“One of the things that Mississippi learned when we went to this system back in 2007 was that because we became more consistent, the computer was looking at some of these issues,” said Smith.

Funded by a combined $90 million consortium development grant through the U.S. Department of Labor as well as an additional $10 million for Maine, the state formally began its migration project in January 2013.

The four partners in ReEmployUSA aren’t the only states contemplating a consortium solution to modernize UI, Scott Sanders, executive director of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, said earlier this year.

The Southeast Consortium Unemployment Insurance Benefits Initiative connects labor departments in North Carolina and South Carolina; MW partners Maryland and West Virginia; and Vermont will take part in Idaho’s Internet Unemployment System.

But there’s more to come from ReEmployUSA.

Mississippi deployed its state’s UI benefits on Aug. 30; upgraded its UI tax component in September, then worked closely with Maine ahead of Wednesday’s deployment. In 2018, officials plan to go live with the tax side of Maine’s UI system in August; then migrate Rhode Island to the cloud in 2019 followed by Connecticut in 2020 and 2021.

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.