The nearly quarter of a million unemployment insurance applications that Hawaii has received during the COVID-19 pandemic are being processed on a government mainframe that was installed in the early 1980s, back when Pac-Man was a cutting-edge video game.
It’s fragile and slow, with technology so obsolete that it predates using a mouse, officials say.
There’s no Microsoft Windows or anything resembling it. The dozens of state workers now assigned to field unemployment calls must instead use a keyboard to move the cursor across a basic, Atari-era screen as they try to help thousands of out-of-work applicants who urgently need payment.
“It’s a very manual process,” Department of Labor and Industrial Relations Director Scott Murakami said last month. “It really is tough with this antiquated mainframe system.”
A long-term fix beyond the recent scramble of system patches wouldn’t come until next year, at the earliest, according to a DLIR spokesman.
The agency largely places the blame on its federal counterparts at the U.S. Department of Labor, who state officials say have failed to provide adequate funding to modernize states’ unemployment IT systems.
Local open-government advocates, however, point to the broader, years-long neglect by various high-ranking officials to overhaul Hawaii’s state IT systems. Doing so would have made the government more transparent — and vital programs more accessible for residents in need, they say.
At one point, coming out of the Great Recession, several key agencies including DLIR, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Health considered creating a shared, user-friendly portal that would have allowed residents to apply for multiple benefits and services, as well as to file unemployment claims.
Ultimately, the initiative fell through when it failed to get the needed buy-in across all agencies, those involved say.
In any case, the key to bringing one of Hawaii’s most critical safety nets out of the Reagan era may lie 2,900 miles away, in Idaho.
Hawaii is hardly the only place where the technology was woefully unprepared for the flood of unemployment insurance, or “UI” claims. More than half of the states’ UI systems — including Hawaii — have crashed amid the pandemic, according to a recent report.
Idaho is one of the states that did not crash.
Federal labor officials have estimated it costs between $50 million and $60 million to replace a single outdated unemployment IT system. Thus, in 2009 they recommended that states band together and create shared systems. That way, they could split up the costs, too.
Idaho already joined one of those state groupings, and it’s already started moving its unemployment IT to a modernized, cloud-based system, according to Hawaii DLIR spokesman Bill Kunstman.
Several years ago, Kunstman said, DLIR Unemployment Insurance Division Administrator Linda Uesato struck up a relationship at an industry meeting with her counterpart in Idaho’s state Department of Labor.
Per federal guidelines, Idaho could share its new UI program, dubbed “iUS,” with other states for free. Idaho agreed with Uesato that they’d look to share it with Hawaii, Kunstman said.
The Aloha State would, however, have to come up with $4 million first to pay Idaho to migrate Hawaii’s unemployment data off its 1980s mainframe and onto the new cloud, according to Kunstman.
Idaho and Hawaii started formally working together out of those discussions with Uesato in 2018, he added.
Hawaii had set aside $3 million and was on course to secure the final million dollars during this Legislative session, he said. The migration would’ve started this summer and taken about a year.
Then, the coronavirus hit. Now, it’s not clear where things stand with the partnership.
“Idaho had other suitors. There were other states interested,” Kunstman said. “They were willing to work with us — they just wanted to make sure we had the money to pay for it.”
DLIR hasn’t had a chance to check in because “we’ve been busy putting out fires,” he said.
Idaho state officials did not respond to a recent request for comment.
If they’re able to salvage the arrangement, Hawaii could update its UI system by 2021, Kunstman said. That’s well after the pandemic and its initial wave of unemployment filings has passed.
“We just know the capacity is much greater, it’s more flexible and it has greater resiliency,” he said. “It’s obviously more efficient than what we’re working with now.”
Meanwhile, state officials are trying to patch the aging UI system they’ve got on the fly.
They’re seeing massive, record volume — but the Reagan-era mainframe can easily crash from too much traffic, Murakami told state leaders last month.
DLIR has tried to control the mainframe traffic by creating separate online portals. Those lucky enough to get through to the portals can apply, check their application status, and re-certify for unemployment payments without accessing the mainframe directly.
The mainframe regularly updates those portals with the latest data, Murakami said.
“The mainframe was never designed to be a web service,” Kunstman said last week. “It was like, before the web.”
But many of the state’s jobless have expressed frustration and anxiety at how hard it is to access the system or get through on the phone.
“The whole system, the way it’s designed from the state perspective, it’s just bad,” said Gauhar Nguyen, a local grant writer. In 2011, she was hired by another DLIR branch, the Workforce Development Council, to pursue a competitive federal grant for IT fixes.
State officials never applied for it, however.
The experience was “indicative of how the whole IT system has been treated” statewide, Nguyen said.
Christine Sakuda, executive director of Transform Hawaii Government, echoed Nguyen’s comments.
Historically in Hawaii, “investing in government (IT) infrastructure has not been a top priority,” she said. “And to be fair, when money is tight the programs that are more civic-facing are the ones that probably get funding.”
What Hawaii is left with then, is a patchwork of old systems cobbled together at a time when the public is demanding better digital access to government services, Sakuda added.
As of Thursday, more than 229,000 out-of-work Hawaii residents had applied for unemployment insurance, the DLIR reported. On Monday, the agency reported that 222,000 claims were “on the mainframe.”
About one in three workers are estimated to be out of a job in the islands.
Only about 93,000 total claims have been paid through the system so far.
The rest continue to wait. They include Eduardo Hernandez, a 53-year-old Kakaako resident who was laid off last month from his job as a development officer at a local nonprofit housing agency.
He’s been trying to certify his income on DLIR’s cobbled-together system — with limited success.
“I’m supposed to file by tomorrow but every time I go to log in I can mostly not even get past the first page because it says ‘system busy,’” Hernandez said Friday.
“Occasionally I get to the part where I put in my user ID and then I get all excited — and then I get the same message,” he added. “‘System busy.’”
“Next month I think I’m going to be OK, but after that I really need the unemployment benefits to get by,” Hernandez said.
Civil Beat reporter Anita Hofschneider contributed to this report.
The Hawaii Community Foundation’s Omidyar Ohana Fund supports Transform Hawaii Government. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?