Connecticut ranks last in the nation for personal income

Connecticut will pay tens of millions of dollars of backlogged unemployment insurance benefits in the next two weeks after crafting emergency upgrades to its nearly 40-year-old computer system, eliminating a major obstacle to mitigating the economic hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic,  state labor officials said Wednesday.

The programming updates will break a logjam of 180,000 pending claims and reduce six-week wait times to a projected seven days, officials in Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration said. They also will enable the state Department of Labor to pay by the end of April the additional $600 per week provided by federal relief legislation.

The unemployment claims office at the DOL has been at the center of the crisis: An instant employment recession forced by the state-ordered closures of non-essential businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19. About 350,000 jobless claims were filed in just four weeks, a volume typically seen over a period of years.

Nationally, about 16 million people have filed claims since mid-March.

Despite quadrupling its claims processing staff from 20 to 80, the state labor department found itself swamped.

“We generally have people who have not taken a day off in 32 days,” Deputy Commissioner Dante Bartolomeo said. “They are working around the clock and are incredibly dedicated.”

Deputy Labor Commissioner Dante Bartolomeo Arielle Levin Becker / The CT Mirror

Compounding the situation is a claims processing system developed in the 1980s that relies on COBOL, a business programming language first created in the late 1950s.

“This system is not nimble,” said Deputy Commissioner Daryle Dudzinski, noting that any error in an application — a missing Social Security Number, an incomplete address — stopped an automated review of the application and triggered a manual review.

Dudzinski estimated 135,000 of the 180,000 applications remaining to be processed had fallen into this trap.

While workers scrambled to process and provide $107 million in benefits over the last three weeks — seven times the normal caseload — they also were tasked with writing several new programs to keep claims on the faster, automated processing route.

“Our staff has been spread into doing a lot of things at once on parallel tracks,” Bartolomeo said.

The new programs still will require applicants with small, technical errors on their requests to submit corrected information, but it won’t stall relief in the meantime.

Bartolomeo said this new system should eliminate most of the 180,000-application backlog by April 25, complete with retroactive payments.

Federal unemployment benefits by April 27

Another casualty of the crush of applications and the outdated IT system has been enhanced federal relief for the unemployed.

Congress included in its $2.2 trillion relief package an unemployment benefit bump of $600 per week on top of state benefits for up to four months.  The extra funds became available in late March but Connecticut couldn’t disperse them because of the COBOL system, and specifically because of one digit.

The labor department programs had been limited to three digits in the benefit field. In other words, it’s no problem to fulfill a state benefit, for example, of $600 per week. But try to add the federal funds and $600 becomes $1,200 — and four digits was a problem.

When the system was created in the 1980s, Dudzinski said, the average weekly benefit was about $100. “We never needed to go more than three digits for a dollar amount back then,” he said. And many state agencies, not just the labor department, have fallen behind upgrading their IT systems over the last few decades.

Department staff wrote new programs in recent weeks not only to allow for four-digit benefit payments, but also to ensure other programs that track benefit data can analyze the federal payments.

Bartolomeo said this new system should be distributing federal benefits to workers, also with retroactive payments if necessary, by the week starting Monday, April 27.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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