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COBOL-coding volunteers sought as slammed mainframes slow New Jersey's coronavirus response

Huge surge in applications for financial assistance show Governor Phil Murphy the ugly side of technical debt

The governor of New Jersey has asked COBOL-capable coders to volunteer their skills as the US state’s mainframe computers have struggled to cope with a surge of requests for benefits to help citizens through the coronavirus crisis.

In his daily press briefing on April 4, Governor Phil Murphy said: “In our list of volunteers not only do we need health care workers but given the legacy systems we should add a page for cobalt [sic] computer skills, because that's what we're dealing with in these legacies.”

Governor Murphy said his staff is “doing a heck of a job but literally we have systems that are 40-plus years old and there'll be lots of post mortems and one of them on our list will be how the heck did we get here when we literally needed cobalt programmers.”

Here’s the clip of the governor calling for COBOL programmers:

Youtube Video

It appears that New Jersey needs COBOL coders because its benefits system has choked on a surge of requests for unemployment payments.

In the video above, from around the 46:50 mark, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Robert Asaro-Angelo explained that his agency has experienced a 1,600 per cent increase in its usual volume of requests for assistance.

“There's nothing I want more than to put your hard-earned benefits into your family budget sooner we've made no secret about the inflexibility of our legacy technology and our desperate desire to receive and act on more of your phone calls," he said. "We hear your frustration and we are with you we're currently working to bring into our systems more of your calls and emails. This is our number one priority.”

That inflexibility has been noted by the press, which reported half of claims for unemployment benefits haven’t been processed immediately.

At Governor Murphy’s April 2 briefing he said: “This morning the Department of Labor reported that over the past week more than 206,000 new claims for unemployment were filed, meaning that in just the past two weeks alone more than 362,000 residents have filed for unemployment.

“And we are also very cognizant that there are delays and backups in the system, and we urge everyone to please have patience and that your claim will be taken care of and you will not lose one penny of your benefits.”

As Murphy’s April 4 remarks suggests, technical debt has come back to bite the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce at the least-convenient possible moment. ®

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