US Needs People Who Know COBOL to Help Process Unemployment Claims


Some things just refuse to die. You may have thought in the age of the Internet of things, mobile phones, and Chromebooks, that COBOL was dead, but you’d be wrong. It’s still alive. Surprisingly, it’s the government that’s still using it, and they need help with it in multiple states to handle the extra unemployment claims that abound, thanks to coronavirus COVID-19.

Rise in Unemployment

Most of the United States is on lockdown, shelter at home, quarantine, whatever you want to call it. Unless they are an “essential” worker, they are stuck at home and not allowed to go to work, as their businesses have been shut down.

This has created a backlog of unemployment claims. Employees are either being furloughed or laid off, but they still need to pay their bills, so they’re filing for unemployment benefits. In the last four weeks, close to 17 million people have filed in the U.S. This has caused quite a backload in some states, as the claims need to be processed on aging computers that still use COBOL.

Aging Government Systems

COBOL is an acronym for common business-oriented language. It was designed in 1959 for the U.S. Defense Department as a portable programming language for data processing.

Some states are still using it 60 years later. In particular, New Jersey. Gov. Phil Murphy is asking for volunteers who know how to code in COBOL, as many of New Jersey’s systems still run on older mainframes. More than 362,000 New Jersey residents filed for unemployment in the past two weeks.


“Literally, we have systems that are 40-plus years old,” said Murphy. “There’ll be lots of postmortems, and one of them on our list will be how did we get here, where we literally needed COBOL programmers?”

Connecticut is having a similar problem. They have a “40-year-old system comprised of a COBOL mainframe and four other separate systems.” They’re working on a new benefits system with Maine, Rhode Island, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, but the system won’t be finished until 2021. Kansas was in the process of modernizing, but they didn’t finish before COVID-19 hit, so now they’re stuck.

The states aren’t alone. A 2017 Reuters report found that there were still 220 billion lines of COBOL in use at that time. 43 percent of banking systems are built on COBOL, and 95 percent of ATM swipes depend on COBOL. The U.S. federal government still uses it as well.

The inspector general for the Social Security Administration filed a 2018 report that found the administration maintained more than 60 million lines of COBOL, as well as “millions more lines of other legacy programming languages.” The inspector general advised the administration to modernize its systems.

“Governors should not have to think about computer systems during a pandemic,” said Joseph Steinberg, an expert on cybersecurity, “and we should have systems that if there are emergency situations, should not make the emergencies worse.”

If you know COBOL and are looking to help out some way during this pandemic, New Jersey, Connecticut, and some other states could use your help.

COBOL isn’t alone. Learn about other outdated IT infrastructures.

Image Credit: COBOL Concept Art and 1950s computer via DepositPhotos

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