New Jersey’s Broken Unemployment System Uses 60-Year-Old Programming Language

The state's 40 year-old systems use COBOL and are struggling with an unprecedented number of unemployment applications.
A textbook titled "COBOL forStudents"
Image: James UK

Because of the unprecedented amount of people applying for unemployment in New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy has put out a call for volunteers that know the 61-year-old programming language COBOL.

COBOL, or 'Common Business-Oriented Language," was developed in the 50s in conjunction with the Department of Defense. The language is ancient, but is still used for financial programs and in government agencies. According to New Jersey’s commissioner of labor Rob Asaro-Angelo, there are 40 year old mainframe computers in the state that still use it. Right now, those mainframes need to be up and running to handle the over 360,000 applications for unemployment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Literally, we have systems that are 40 years-plus old, and 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?” Murphy said at a press conference on Saturday.

Although this feels ridiculous, the majority of people who still program in and use applications powered by COBOL don't want the language to go away. According to a survey from Micro Focus in February of this year, 70 percent of COBOL programmers would rather "modernize" COBOL applications rather than get rid of them entirely. Just like New York City relies on an outdated operating system from the early 90s to power its entire public transportation systems, as long as governments rely on systems that are decades old, the COBOL will most likely remain in use.

The global pandemic has done a lot to reveal the inherent fragility to systems we take for granted in the United States. Hopefully the absurd situation that the state of New Jersey is in will convince enough people to update their 40 year-old systems to something that can handle the needs of the pandemic.