State Government

UI computer upgrade lacks details, IT analyst says

State employees in mid-April 2020 prepare to deliver batch of unemployment checks to the post office. Office of Gov. Phil Scott photo.

By Guy Page

Last year, the State of Emergency shut down the Vermont economy. An unprecedented number of unemployment insurance benefits applications crashed the Vermont Department of Labor’s 20-year-old mainframe computer system. Both phone and computer capacity at DOL were overwhelmed. 

While they waited weeks, even months, to apply for and receive benefits, Vermonters complained to their elected representatives. Some lawmakers made angry phone calls of their own to the Scott administration. Others fumed publicly. Some even volunteered to help answer the unanswered phone calls. A frustrated Gov. Phil Scott authorized emergency, $1200 unemployment checks and drove them personally to the post office. Weeks later, widespread unemployment insurance fraud as unscrupulous applicants took advantage of the state’s zeal to get checks out to qualified beneficiaries.

All in all, DOL’s poor performance in a pinch was a very public, very embarassing failure of the state’s obsolete technology. Even more frustrating, when the pandemic hit the State had just withdrawn from a failed multi-state solution that had been years in development. When the crunch came, Montpelier was back at square one with no fix in the works. 

Lawmakers and administration officials alike pledged “never again.” Flush with federal money, the Legislature budgeted $4.5 million for Phase One of a longterm plan to replace the ancient computer system.

But now a state analyst says the state’s plan needs more thought and the Legislature shouldn’t release initial funding until that work is done.

“I believe that the JITOC [Joint Informational Technology Oversight Committee] is not yet in a position to approve funding for the UIM [Unemployment Insurance Modernization effort],” Joint Fiscal Office IT consultant Dan Smith said in a July 8 report

Vermont’s Agency of Digital Services needs a better description of what’s needed in the future, a point person to take charge of the project, and a list of alternatives to its proposed fix, Smith said. Only when that work is done should funding be released and a Request for Proposal (RFP) be issued, he recommended. 

In response, administration officials have said that the plan is necessarily broad because the system will need the agility to respond to changing needs. They emphasize that it’s more important to develop a replacement sooner rather than later, with the ability to make changes as necessary. 

The next meeting of JITOC will be Friday, July 23 at 9 AM in Room 10 in the State House. 

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