Computers Can’t Cut Red Tape

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As the United States shut down within the spring and tens of hundreds of thousands of individuals misplaced their jobs, Arizona modernized its 35-year-old pc system on the fly to get unemployment advantages into individuals’s palms as quick as potential. This is authorities know-how that’s truly serving to individuals.

To a degree.

Arizona has additionally been a case research of the boundaries of know-how within the tooth of a jobless disaster, authorities forms and other people making an attempt to sport the system. States like Arizona have been stricken by previous and underfunded know-how techniques, however coverage decisions and the dimensions of want are the massive causes persons are having bother getting monetary assist.

My colleague Ben Casselman lately wrote about Arizona rebuilding from scratch elements of its pc system that had struggled to deal with unemployment claims. The new system partially changed one developed within the 1980s utilizing Sputnik-era pc programming software program, mentioned Michael Wisehart, the director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

That has allowed the state to pay inside just a few days a brand new $300 weekly supplemental unemployment insurance coverage profit, Wisehart mentioned. It’s simpler for individuals to trace the standing of their claims, too. That is nice information at a time when many Americans have struggled, typically for months, to obtain jobless funds.

Even so, getting the federal government profit in Arizona stays a slog.

The state’s previous pc system for unemployment claims nonetheless exists, and now operates in parallel to the brand new one. Because of a labyrinth of federal and state legal guidelines for unemployment insurance coverage, some individuals must submit unemployment claims with the previous pc system and web site, and different individuals with the brand new one. It’s not all the time clear which one they’ve to make use of.

People additionally must validate their employment standing every week to ensure they nonetheless qualify for funds. And Wisehart advised me that Arizona was sifting by means of more potentially fraudulent claims than usual. This takes time and manpower for state workers and has caused payments to be mistakenly denied to people.

Plus, the demand is enormous. Wisehart said that Arizona expanded the call center staff for its unemployment hotline to more than 400 people from 13 before the pandemic, but that the state still couldn’t keep up with the volume of calls — up to 100,000 a day right now.

Wisehart said the underlying challenge was trying to adapt a fragmented unemployment insurance system into an emergency social safety net for many millions of people. He wondered whether it would have been simpler to do what some other countries have done and pay employers to keep people on the payroll during the pandemic.

With unemployment benefits bogged down by red tape and policy choices that have made it complicated for states and citizens, Arizona’s upgraded computer system could only do so much.

“Yes, modernizing technology is certainly a foundational piece that allows more nimbleness in times of crisis,” Wisehart said. But, he added, “in no way, shape or form was this system of laws and regulation prepared for this pandemic.”

Christmas this year is likely to be weird for many people — including mall Santas.

My colleague Sapna Maheshwari, who co-wrote an article last week about retailers coping with a pandemic-tinged holiday shopping season, also wrote this dispatch about how one Santa is preparing for virtual visits with children. (If your kids believe in Santa, maybe don’t let them read this.)

Stephen Arnold, a professional Santa in Memphis, is worried about the small talk.

Arnold, the president of a trade group called the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, said that he and his jolly comrades typically spend less than a minute for each Christmas-time session with children in malls or big box stores. A kid sits on a lap, Santa asks what gift he or she wants for Christmas, and they pose for a photo. The end.

But like many things in 2020, visits with Santa will most likely be going online this holiday season, and Arnold said he thought the remote lap time will probably stretch up to eight or 10 minutes. That’s a lot of time to fill, and he’s prepping for possible questions that children will fire at Santa.

“Do you know all the reindeer names? Well, where’s Rudolph? And do you go out to the barn to feed them? And does Mrs. Claus always make cookies?” Arnold imagined the interrogation from kids.

He’s also getting all his Santa tech ready. Arnold has set up a makeshift video studio in a spare bedroom at home. He said he was talking with some families about him bringing a large-screen TV to someone’s garage so he can then offer a virtual group story time with Santa plus one-on-one video chats.

Santa will be beamed in from home. He can’t be there in person because of social distancing, he might explain.

When it got hot outside, these lemurs stayed cool by hugging a tree.

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