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States Lean on Cloud as Unemployment Claims Skyrocket

Unemployment insurance claims have easily surpassed 26 million in just a few weeks. Cloud-based applications and call centers are taking some of the pressure off exhausted state UI systems.

An outline of a cloud in light blue against light blue dots connected by lines like a circuit board, also in light blue. Black background.
Although U.S. unemployment insurance systems have struggled to accommodate a five-week total of about 26 million jobless claims, cloud-based solutions appear to be a viable answer to state tech problems. 

According to a report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, 26 state UI websites have crashed. Despite this website issue, states have encouraged citizens to apply online if they can, as UI call centers have been slammed and unresponsive. 

Applying upgrades to old legacy systems appears to be a temporary band-aid at best. Just as one adds capacity to existing traditional tech, another spike in claims sends them scrambling again. 

This was a lesson learned for Mississippi during the days of Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession, said Mohammed Jalaluddin, CIO of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security. The lesson led the state to modernize its system in 2009 and to begin hosting a UI system in the cloud as part of a four-state consortium in 2017. 

In an email to Government Technology, Larry Parker, government and public relations officer for the North Carolina Division of Employment Security, said a cloud application has allowed the state to modify its system faster than in the past, such as during the Great Recession. North Carolina was able to program its system for COVID-19-related claims “very quickly,” though the state has still had to upgrade its server capacity more than once during the surge of claims. 

Jalaluddin said cloud computing is “definitely” the key to absorbing the massive increases in UI claims. The cloud allows for scalability and has other benefits as well. “Contrary to popular belief, cloud systems are more secure than traditional systems,” he said.

Mississippi’s UI system has not crashed over the last few weeks, according to Jalaluddin, though the system was down for about three hours during one night so that IT staff could fine-tune parameters in the database.

Rhode Island has also seen the benefits of the cloud with its application for Pandemic Employment Assistance (PUA), a new program created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Scott Jensen, director of the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, said the state’s UI system, which relies on a 30-year-old mainframe with COBOL as its programming language, would have to be entirely recoded to accommodate PUA claims. Taking this route would have been a “complete disaster.” 

Instead, Rhode Island mimicked the application on the cloud and had people sign up for the program outside of the state’s main UI system. From there, the state did some programming on the back end to verify information and get the data in a form that can then be injected into the mainframe in strategic ways — such as at 2 a.m., when no one is using the system.

Jensen said Rhode Island also utilized the cloud to fix issues with its interactive voice response (IVR) phone system. Before installing the cloud-based call center, the state never knew how many people were trying to get benefits at once. Once the cloud solution was implemented Monday, the state found out that 900 people a minute were calling the department. 

The cloud-based call center’s capacity can be expanded to handle tremendous traffic. “We certified 76,000 people in one day without a busy signal,” Jensen said.

Some citizens were confused after the new system was put into place, as they were used to the old way of doing things, but Jensen considered the confusion a small price to pay for an effective system. 

“The amount of consternation that we caused by having to change so abruptly was more than made up for with people being able to make it through,” he said. 

Last weekend, Ohio had to establish a virtual call center on the cloud after its citizens faced numerous problems trying to figure out the status of their UI claims. In an email to Government Technology, Bret Crow, communications director for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, said the state received more than half a million calls on both Monday and Tuesday of this week. Ohio has had to expand its call center hours, transition hundreds of staff from other departments to help with the phones and estalbish a self-service IVR option. 

Jalaluddin said Mississippi also utilized the cloud to help absorb an incredible number of phone calls, but human capital remains an issue. 

“From a technology standpoint, we extended the current phone system with a cloud solution, but there are challenges with staffing it,” Jalaluddin said. “The problem is not just finding people; it’s locating people who have the skills to work the system.”

Moving forward, Jensen said Rhode Island will continue to take pieces of its old system and put them on the cloud bit by bit “rather than rebuild a whole new system from scratch in a waterfall fashion,” which is extremely risky. Jensen believes any state can go the cloud route. The key is making the appropriate legal arrangements and policy decisions beforehand and having just a little knowledge about cloud computing.

“I think that this strategy of using the cloud is going to be immensely helpful to unemployment insurance programs around the country,” Jensen said. “We kind of missed a generation of technology, and this new generation of cloud-based computing is really, really suited to the kind of work we do. If there’s a bright spot to this pandemic, it’s that necessity is the mother of invention.”

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.