State working to upgrade software to process unemployment claims

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By Paul Hughes, Republican-American

HARTFORD — Software upgrades are expected to cut the processing time for unemployment claims from up to six weeks to one week or less.

The Department of Labor has been inundated with more than 350,000 unemployment claims since March 13 because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Through Wednesday, the labor department managed to manually process approximately 174,000 applications, leaving a backlog of 176,000 to clear.

Gov. Ned Lamont and Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby said Wednesday software workarounds that were tested in recent days have produced promising results.

The programming fixes have allowed the labor department to bypass the manual processing of many unemployment claims.

The upgrades also cleared up an issue that had been delaying the payment of additional federal benefits.

Westby said a final test overnight Wednesday would attempt to process 60,000 claims. If successful, he said the department will be able to greatly reduce processing times.

“I think that is going to put a very big dent into the group of claims that we haven’t addressed yet,” Westby said.

Currently, the manual processing of unemployment claims can take four to six weeks.

Paired with the continued manual processing, Westby and Deputy Labor Commissioner Daryle Dudzinski said the software workarounds should reduce processing times to a week or less.

If the overnight test Wednesday succeeds, Westby and Dudzinski said the labor department should catch up on the backlogged claims by the end of next week.

The surge in unemployment claims has overwhelmed a processing system that uses a 40-year-old mainframe that runs on the antiquated COBOL language along with four other systems. Developed in the 1960s, COBOL stands for Common Business-Oriented Language.

“We are now putting out 30,000 claims per week. The norm in the old days, only two months ago, was less than 3,000,” Westby said.

The labor department embarked on a $25 million modernization project as part of a five-state consortium that was due to be completed in April 2021 before the coronavirus outbreak. The ReEmployUSA Consortium is now concentrating efforts on responding to the pandemic.

The software upgrades also rectified a coding issue that had delayed the processing of $600 in supplemental weekly benefits that the federal government is providing for claims filed from March 29 through July 31. Those additional payments are expected to be added starting next Friday.

Currently, the weekly benefit in Connecticut ranges from $15 to $649. With the additional federal payment, benefits will run from $615 to $1,249.

There is also a dependency allowance of $15 for a child under age 18, a child under 21 and a full-time student, and adult children with disabilities. The maximum allowance is $75.

Despite the processing delays, Westby said claimants will receive unemployment payments retroactive to their filing dates.

In addition, the labor department expects to begin accepting claim applications from self-employed individuals and independent contractors by April 30. These benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance will also be retroactive to the filing date.