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NBC15 Investigates: DWD experiences problems with decades old coding software

Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development (DWD) is using a software system...
Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development (DWD) is using a software system that’s 50-years-old.(NBC15)
Published: May. 5, 2020 at 7:23 PM CDT
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Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development (DWD) is using a software system that’s 50-years-old.

The system is called “COBOL.” It stands for “Common Business Oriented Language.”

The DWD is using it to sort out the issues, but it may be part of the problem.

Since March, NBC15 News has detailed the frustration of those filing for unemployment.

“I’ve been seeing the same message since I first started my claim,” Julian Freeman told NBC15 News.

The DWD has experienced clogged phone lines and long waits.

Since March 15, 2020, the DWD’s Unemployment Insurance Division (UI) has received nearly 480,000 applicants and distributed more than $290 million.

On Thursday, the DWD sent NBC15 News a release that said due to a malfunction, people who have an account through US Bank received double the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. The agency had to pull the extra money from those accounts, and was unable to account for the amount of people who were impacted.

After this incident, NBC15 News Investigates asked a Workforce Development employee whether the software had anything to do with the issue of double pay.

The employee responded, “Our technology is based on a COBOL mainframe from the 1970's. Programing that technology certainly has had an impact on the Department's ability to [roll] out three new federal program quickly.”

“It’s an old language, where all we’re trying to do is maintain it,” UW-Madison Professor Emeritus of Computer Science Charles Fischer said.

Fischer has worked with COBOL software during its initial release in the 1950s, when he was in high school.

"COBOL is a language that has dead-ended,” Fischer said. “At the university we taught COBOL into the 1980s, maybe even the 90s, but my gosh, that's 25 years even then."

Fischer said the system was still working, so many states, including Wisconsin, continued to use the COBOL software.

New Jersey, Colorado and Ohio area also experiencing issues.

“Programming done in haste tends to be unreliable,” Fischer said. “If they call me in and say ‘this has to be out tomorrow afternoon, because we need to start printing checks tomorrow,’ that will be a much tougher job than saying 'take a week, take two weeks, show a sample to somebody to make sure they're happy’ and then we're done."

Fischer said the combination of fewer COBOL experts, the outdated program and a rushed deadline, all could have factored into the massive backlog and the mistake of double pay.

“I think that any kind of major extensions can be done outside of COBOL.”

NBC15 Investigates reached out the DWD for further comment and an interview with someone from the IT department. A spokesperson said with the amount of work their team is taking on, it’s difficult to pull IT employees away for an interview, but the DWD does expect to make someone available later this week.