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Unemployment system upgrades preparing New York for the worst

NEW YORK NOW - During the peak of the pandemic in 2020, the state system set up to process unemployment claims was infamously overwhelmed.

A four-year effort to modernize and upgrade the system will hopefully ensure nothing like that ever happens again, according to state Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon.

“We’re going to be prepared for whatever comes the next time,” she told The Capitol Pressroom. “We are building this system to be able to absorb a million calls a day.”

In the two years following the arrival of COVID-19 and the shutdown of many aspects of the economy, the state labor department processed about five million unemployment claims, far outstripping the demand for aid that accompanied the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009.

“We would not be doing our job if we didn’t prepare to handle that kind of impact,” Reardon said. “We learned a lot throughout the pandemic. And one thing we learned was, you won’t be able to predict the future, but predict as hard a case as you can, because that may happen.”

The big technological shift for the department is a move to cloud technology, which exponentially expands the capacity of the system compared to one that relies on mainframe-based technology. The transition is a massive undertaking that takes several years to complete, but Reardon predicted the work would be done in the third quarter of 2023.

Some changes to the system – both public-facing and behind the scenes – are already in place and should be making for a smoother consumer experience, according to the department. One of the “newish” additions to the state website is a chatbot function, named after former U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, which is also being updated to respond to specific questions from individuals.

In the next few months, the department is hoping to launch a new phone interface that enables New Yorker to get answers about unemployment questions without ever needing to talk to a human.