Nearly every day brings new economic news that can only be described as catastrophic.
Thursday brought word that more than 5.2 million U.S. workers had filed for unemployment in the past week, pushing the four-week total since the start of the coronavirus-driven shutdown to 22 million. These are numbers that the country does not see in the worst years of a recession, let alone within the span of a few weeks. The federal Commerce Department on Wednesday said retail sales plunged 8.7 percent in March, by far the worst month on record. New residential construction is down 22 percent.
As the human toll from the virus continues to worsen, the underlying economic news is devastating, as well. In Connecticut, about 350,000 jobless claims have been filed just in the past four weeks, which is more than the system will typically see over the course of several years.
Compounding the problem locally is a system that is in no condition to handle the added load.
State officials said this week that a fix is on the way, and that what had been a six-week wait for unemployment claims to be processed will soon be down to one week. There’s still a backlog of tens of thousands of requests, but a software upgrade should be in place shortly to help clear that up. In the meantime, despite some needed breaks for homeowners and renters, many bills still need to be paid. Food and medicine haven’t gotten any cheaper with the pandemic.
It’s welcome news that the state Labor Department has a fix in mind, but the underlying issue is one that is far too easy to overlook. The department is relying on 40-year-old software to process claims, which is balky under the best of circumstances and clearly outdated in important ways. (For instance, benefit totals can only be entered in three-digit increments, which is a problem when there are $1,200 checks going out around the country.)
Every government, at every level, faces underlying infrastructure challenges that are far too easy to kick down the road to an easier time — a time that never actually arrives. There’s always a current crisis to weather before big-picture problems can be handled, and the effect is a system that is inadequate at the best of times and not up to the task of handling a catastrophe when one inevitably hits.
That needs to change. Once the initial rush of unemployment claims has been handled and the state turns its eye toward reopening, a systemwide modernization of crucial computer systems and software must take priority.
Part of responding to a crisis is preparing for the next one. We know the unexpected can happen, and we need to be ready for it. That means having an information technology system that can handle the worst, something the state decidedly lacks.
If we are to take an honest approach to preparing for the next calamity, even as the current crisis is nowhere near over, we need a system in place to handle it. That means no longer relying on software that probably predates many of the people currently attempting to use it.