Computers Can’t Cut Red Tape

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As the United States shut down in the spring and tens of millions of people lost their jobs, Arizona modernized its 35-year-old computer system on the fly to get unemployment benefits into people’s hands as fast as possible. This is government technology that is actually helping people.

To a point.

Arizona has also been a case study of the limits of technology in the teeth of a jobless crisis, government bureaucracy and people trying to game the system. States like Arizona have been plagued by old and underfunded technology systems, but policy choices and the scale of need are the big reasons people are having trouble getting financial help.

My colleague Ben Casselman recently wrote about Arizona rebuilding from scratch parts of its computer system that had struggled to handle unemployment claims. The new system partially replaced one developed in the 1980s using Sputnik-era computer programming software, said Michael Wisehart, the director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

That has allowed the state to pay within a few days a new $300 weekly supplemental unemployment insurance benefit, Wisehart said. It’s easier for people to track the status of their claims, too. That is good news at a time when many Americans have struggled, sometimes for months, to receive jobless payments.

Even so, getting the government benefit in Arizona remains a slog.

The state’s old computer system for unemployment claims still exists, and now operates in parallel to the new one. Because of a labyrinth of federal and state laws for unemployment insurance, some people have to submit unemployment claims with the old computer system and website, and other people with the new one. It’s not always clear which one they have to use.

People also have to validate their employment status each week to make sure they still qualify for payments. And Wisehart told me that Arizona was sifting through more potentially fraudulent claims than usual. This takes time and manpower for state workers and has caused payments to be mistakenly denied to people.

Plus, the demand is enormous. Wisehart said that Arizona expanded the call center staff for its unemployment hotline to more than 400 people from 13 before the pandemic, but that the state still couldn’t keep up with the volume of calls — up to 100,000 a day right now.

Wisehart said the underlying challenge was trying to adapt a fragmented unemployment insurance system into an emergency social safety net for many millions of people. He wondered whether it would have been simpler to do what some other countries have done and pay employers to keep people on the payroll during the pandemic.

With unemployment benefits bogged down by red tape and policy choices that have made it complicated for states and citizens, Arizona’s upgraded computer system could only do so much.

“Yes, modernizing technology is certainly a foundational piece that allows more nimbleness in times of crisis,” Wisehart said. But, he added, “in no way, shape or form was this system of laws and regulation prepared for this pandemic.”

Christmas this year is likely to be weird for many people — including mall Santas.

My colleague Sapna Maheshwari, who co-wrote an article last week about retailers coping with a pandemic-tinged holiday shopping season, also wrote this dispatch about how one Santa is preparing for virtual visits with children. (If your kids believe in Santa, maybe don’t let them read this.)

Stephen Arnold, a professional Santa in Memphis, is worried about the small talk.

Arnold, the president of a trade group called the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, said that he and his jolly comrades typically spend less than a minute for each Christmas-time session with children in malls or big box stores. A kid sits on a lap, Santa asks what gift he or she wants for Christmas, and they pose for a photo. The end.

But like many things in 2020, visits with Santa will most likely be going online this holiday season, and Arnold said he thought the remote lap time will probably stretch up to eight or 10 minutes. That’s a lot of time to fill, and he’s prepping for possible questions that children will fire at Santa.

“Do you know all the reindeer names? Well, where’s Rudolph? And do you go out to the barn to feed them? And does Mrs. Claus always make cookies?” Arnold imagined the interrogation from kids.

He’s also getting all his Santa tech ready. Arnold has set up a makeshift video studio in a spare bedroom at home. He said he was talking with some families about him bringing a large-screen TV to someone’s garage so he can then offer a virtual group story time with Santa plus one-on-one video chats.

Santa will be beamed in from home. He can’t be there in person because of social distancing, he might explain.

When it got hot outside, these lemurs stayed cool by hugging a tree.

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