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Post-COVID, Unemployment Systems Take Stock and Go Modern

With the pressure of the pandemic finally easing, state officials are working to upgrade the technology underpinning outdated unemployment offices and prevent fraudulent claims.

People waiting in line in a hallway at an unemployment services office
State unemployment offices came under tremendous pressure during the pandemic — not only because of the mass of people trying to access benefits, as well as significant fraud, but also because of often sluggish and even outdated technology.

Now, with that pandemic pressure finally easing, officials across the country are tackling scores of updates and similar projects. A look at the challenges and issues in three states foreshadows the future of unemployment services, which are among the main sources of connection between citizens and their governments.


With unemployment claims back down to pre-pandemic levels in New Jersey, the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development (NJDOL) in January looked back on recent service improvements. The department launched a UI system with a mobile-responsive, plain-language application, described as the “first of many planned improvements.”

Indeed, technology upgrades are a dire need across our government, and must be undertaken in a broad and holistic fashion.
That work has resulted in reducing the average time to complete an initial UI application by 47 minutes, the department said in early January. Emails to claimants have been “rewritten” in the interests of clarity, with feedback indicating “the new emails are easier to follow and less confusing than similar communication received in the past.” Also on tap is a redesign of the self-service claim status page, upgrading the mainframe and what the department called a new claimant intake page.

New Jersey also provides an example of how much other work is involved in making sure unemployment departments can function more efficiently for various segments of the population.

“NJDOL will continue to call for federal action to reform the underlying unemployment laws and regulations that bog down so many New Jersey workers when assistance is most needed,” the department said. “Additionally, NJDOL will continue its work developing groundbreaking digital workforce development tools to better serve New Jersey employers, workers and job seekers.” 

Of course, the New Jersey unemployment office, like so many others, continues to attract complaints about outdated technology. Last year, for instance, state Sen. Andrew Zwicker criticized the use of COBOL programming language for UI benefits and also highlighted how the unemployment department is a signal post of sorts for broader technological upgrades in state government.

“Nor is the computer infrastructure problem exclusive to unemployment claims or the Department of Labor,” he wrote. “Indeed, technology upgrades are a dire need across our government, and must be undertaken in a broad and holistic fashion.”


In Kansas, meanwhile, state officials are in the midst of a $48 million modernization of the unemployment insurance system, work that kicked off in June 2022 and for which Kansas plans to use $4.5 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Labor, according to a statement from Gov. Laura Kelly.

“Despite our unemployment rate returning to historically low levels, Kansas is still using antiquated equipment to work through pandemic-related claims, claims maintenance adjustments, overpayments, and fraud identification and migration,” she wrote in a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor seeking funding help.

The state’s UI technology depends on a mainframe system that dates to the bell-bottom days of the 1970s. The last modernization push began in 2005 and lasted until 2011. Now the state, with the help of Tata Consultancy Services, is determined to bring more online self-service, automation, data access, partner integration and other tools to help applicants, UI recipients, businesses and Kansas Department of Labor employees.

Fraud prevention and cybersecurity will also play big roles in the planned updates.


On the West Coast, California was battered by billions in fraud perpetrated by people that took advantage of relaxed eligibility rules used to speed economic relief during the pandemic. It happened in a lot of states, in fact, though the scale was uniquely large given California’s population of nearly 40 million residents.

Rita Gass, chief information officer for the California Employment Development Department (EDD), offered an almost dizzying update on how that state is improving its unemployment system. In fact, Gass counted some 200 IT projects over the last 18 months in her department — a good indication of all the work that needs to be done.

For her agency, those changes include creating a cybersecurity division — a reflection of the increasingly tight focus at all levels of government on defending against hackers and other criminals. The general idea is to not only increase digital protections but do so in a way that consolidates and unifies cybersecurity functions across multiple areas of EDD.

“Existing systems are stable and able to continue to process claims and provide service,” Gass said via email. “However, the customer-centered, advanced fraud mitigation and security enhancements EDD wants to achieve will require a modern platform,” and those are on the horizon with the state’s modernization push, EDDNext.

The state has budgeted for new positions, including in cybersecurity and anti-fraud efforts, and officials expect that to grow as EDDNext continues. It’s a complex project that involves integrating three systems into one.

Gass offered greater detail about planned improvements underway during the project’s first phase:

“We are reconfiguring call processes and incorporating multilingual functionality, building a single sign-on account for all our benefit programs, researching with customers the best way to improve our benefit applications and forms and designing enhancements, and strengthening our training materials to better support and empower staff to deliver excellent customer service.”

This story from our March 2023 magazine is part of a larger look at modernizing state systems. Click here to read the rest of the feature.
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.