Last week, COVID-19 caused restaurants, bars, and other businesses to close their doors for at least 30 days. Furloughed workers exponentially increased the traffic to unemployment websites, setting a new record. Reports show that 3.3 million people filed for first-time unemployment claims in the week of March 15. The previous record for first-time unemployment insurance claims was 695,000, set in October of 1982.
The current system was not prepared for these unprecedented numbers, and many states did not have the IT infrastructure to handle the surge in claims. Claimants frequently got kicked off of overloaded websites. In an attempt to divert traffic, many people were told to call unemployment offices directly, which were also thoroughly overwhelmed. “We are doing everything we can. We are adding servers on a daily basis and we are adding people for the call lines,” said a spokesperson for Florida’s Department for Economic Opportunity.
There is a startling lack of website and infrastructure maintenance on behalf of state governments nationwide, and they have known since 2018. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation conducted a study on 8 government websites in all 50 states. The report found that “every state can improve the web experience they provide the public.” The report specifically focused on the most used government functionalities including drivers’ licenses, taxes, and paying traffic tickets. Unemployment websites were not included in the report as they are used intermittently under normal circumstances, but it’s clear that they weren’t prepared or optimized just like the others.
To slow the spread of Coronavirus, many other “non-essential” businesses closed their doors nationwide as of Tuesday, March 24. This will further increase the number of claims of furloughed workers seeking unemployment. It is uncertain how those numbers will compare to this record number of claims. Those numbers will not be available until the end of the week. It will be interesting to see if the changes made to websites, IT infrastructure, and phone systems will be enough to handle this week’s demand, or if further changes will need to be made.