An Old Computer System is Keeping Many Americans From Getting Their Coronavirus Relief Checks

City of Hialeah employee Miguel Diaz hands out paper unemployment applications to people in their vehicles in front of the John F. Kennedy Library in Hialeah, FL. (April 8, 2020)
City of Hialeah employee Miguel Diaz hands out paper unemployment applications to people in their vehicles in front of the John F. Kennedy Library in Hialeah, FL. (April 8, 2020)
Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty Images)

If you haven’t seen your personal stimulus check yet, you could be waiting a while. Multiple states are relying on computers running a 60-year-old programming language to process the sudden influx of households, businesses, and individuals covered by the $2 trillion covid-19 response bill, the CARES Act. And unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of people still in the workforce who know COBOL to help update these systems. Additionally, these systems are not fully automated, so depending on what the mainframes are trying to process, someone has to be around to manually move it along to the next action.

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Robin Roberson, executive director of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, told Bloomberg, “Our mainframe is literally over 30 years old. It’s very difficult to program, it doesn’t do much. COBOL programmers are somewhat scarce.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced last week that it was looking for COBOL programmers to help the state update its systems and get payments out to people faster. Connecticut is also working with retired COBOL programmers to help clear its six-week backlog of unemployment applications. “Typically the agency receives 3,000 new claims a week, but the applications we have seen in the last 21 days represent more than we would handle in 18 months,” said State Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby during a press conference. Florida has been so overwhelmed with requests it’s reverted to using paper applications. California is allowing state officials to award benefits to certain individuals before their eligibility has officially been determined, according to Politico.

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$1 billion was allocated to states under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to help states handle the sudden influx of claims by updating their systems, but that money has either arrived too late or there isn’t enough for states to fully update their old computer systems. Financial institutions are also feeling the strain, as they too still use COBOL-based systems; it would cost a massive amount of time and money to replace it with something more modern. According to Reuters, 43 percent of banking systems, 80 percent of in-person transactions, and 95 percent of ATM swipes still use COBOL.

According to Bloomberg, the COBOL talent shortage states are suddenly facing has been “building for years through a combination of techno-snobbery, limited formal training, an aging pool of experts, and a lack of employers willing to pay up for the few people who are still willing to do the work.” The COBOL programming language was first developed by Grace Hopper in 1959. It can be difficult to learn, and a lot of college computer science and programming courses aren’t teaching the language anymore, but those that still are teaching it don’t attract many students. These days, programming courses are focused on Java, Python, Ruby, and others.

What’s more, those who learned how to code in COBOL back in the day didn’t learn in a formal environment. They learned on the job at banks, government agencies, and other places. Phil Teplitzky, chief technology officer of HP Marin Group LLC, told Bloomberg that “There’s little documentation explaining how these systems were built,” so for decades these places have relied on their workers to pass down the information to new hires. Now, a lot of those new hires are retired. Other than states asking these retired programmers to volunteer their time to help update these COBOL systems, companies like IBM are starting initiatives to train people in COBOL for free, as well as help connect government and financial institutions with COBOL programmers.

Staff Reporter, Reviews at Gizmodo. Formerly PC Gamer, Maximum PC.

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DISCUSSION

pedal-force
pedal-force

Some of the snark here (and you’re not the only outlet messing this up) is somewhat undeserved.

Yes, these systems probably haven’t gotten the maintenance they need over the years, and probably extraordinarily kludged together.

That being said, the age of a programming language doesn’t mean much by itself. C++ is still one of the best languages going, and was started in 1985.

C is from 1972, and is still very much in use in certain circumstances.

COBOL has been updated relatively recently (2014 stable release) and has an IEC standard associated with it. It’s not some podunk language that nobody has heard of in 40 years.

Should they have re-written these in a better/faster/more portable/extensible language 20 years ago? Yes, definitely.

But just knowing that COBOL is old doesn’t tell you that.