Business & Economy

Labor commissioner apologizes to legislators following unemployment benefit snafu

Michael Harrington on March 16, 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington apologized to a legislative committee Tuesday for not informing the Legislature earlier this summer that a supplemental unemployment benefit could be in trouble.

The U.S. Department of Labor informed the Vermont Department of Labor in June that there could be a problem with a recently passed $25-a-week benefit if it was paid for via the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

The federal government’s decision relied on the state labor department’s interpretation of a new law that would have created the benefit, finding that it would be considered a supplemental benefit. 

Harrington did not inform the Legislature of the federal government’s position until Aug. 24, when he received notice of the feds’ final decision.  

“If the primary concern is that we didn’t inform the Legislature in what they feel was a timely manner, I apologize,” Harrington told the Unemployment Insurance Study Committee, a joint House and Senate group. “We notified the Legislature when we felt it was appropriate. It was a simple oversight on my part.”

Some legislators have contended that had the Legislature known earlier, lawmakers could have fixed the problems. But Harrington contested that assertion during Tuesday’s hearing. 

“I don’t think it would have changed the federal government’s position,” the commissioner said. 

Harrington also revealed that the 51-year-old mainframe computer his department uses to administer unemployment insurance payments crashes on a weekly basis for 24 to 48 hours at a time. The computer has been a source of headaches for the department for years. 

“At least weekly there is a system issue with the mainframe that results in impacting people getting their benefits,” Harrington said.

He has argued that problems with the computer are preventing a recalculation of unemployment benefits that would not use the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. 

Harrington suggested that if the Legislature wants to increase unemployment benefits, it could change the maximum or minimum benefit without causing major problems with the computer. 

Harrington also pointed to challenges recruiting people who know how to program the computers. 

He said that his department has seen a complete turnover of programmers who use the programming language “COBOL” since he first came to the department as deputy commissioner in 2017.

“The only path forward is whole-system replacement,” Harrington said of the computer problems. 

John Quinn, secretary of the Agency of Digital Services and the state’s chief information officer, testified that it’s not so much the computer but the software that causes problems. 

“It’s the application I worry about,” Quinn said. “It’s not the mainframe itself.” 

Quinn explained that the software is more than 50 years old and the programming language is not COBOL, which is used only in older IBM mainframe systems and is very expensive to change, but an even older language called S-COBOL.

“It’s 250,000 lines of computer code without any structure to it,” Quinn said. 

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Fred Thys

About Fred

Fred Thys covers business and the economy for VTDigger. He is originally from Bethesda, Maryland, and graduated from Williams College with a degree in political science. He is the recipient of the Radio, Television, and Digital News Association's Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting and for Enterprise Reporting. Fred has worked at The Journal of Commerce, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, NBC News, and WBUR, and has written for Le Matin, The Dallas Morning News, and The American Homefront Project.

Email: [email protected]

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