Maine’s New Unemployment System Frustrates the Public and State Workers Alike

Illustration of the state of Maine made up of people, on a computer with a pointer arrow.
Illustration: iStockphoto/IEEE Spectrum

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Problems with unemployment insurance IT systems and rollouts are common, as exemplified by the difficulties experienced by Pennsylvania, Florida, and California, to name a few. In an attempt to reduce the frequency and cost of failure, several states, with encouragement and funding from the U.S. Department of Labor [pdf], have formed consortiums aimed at creating a core UI system that can then be minimally tailored to meet each state’s unique requirements.

One of the more noteworthy systems is ReEmployUSA, which was formed by Mississippi, Maine, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The consortium was the brainchild of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES), which in 2012 finalized the modernization [pdf] of its UI system called Access Mississippi (Access MS). Mississippi offered Access MS to other states as a way to share development and support costs.

Eleven states initially expressed interest [pdf] in Mississippi’s proposal, with Maine and Rhode Island committing to the idea first, followed by Connecticut. The U.S. Labor Department provided $90 million to the consortium to use Access MS as a baseline to be reengineered into a common, cloud-based system that would allow all four states to use it with only 20 to 25 percent tailoring needed.

In August 2017, Mississippi successfully deployed the benefits portion of the new UI system, followed by the employer’s tax portion in September 2017. While there were a few bugs with the two rollouts, they apparently didn’t raise public concerns. Maine was then scheduled to deploy the benefits portion of the new system, which it calls ReEmployME, last October, but unspecified issues delayed its deployment until early December. Given the ongoing heated criticisms about ReEmployME, it perhaps should have been delayed even longer.

For example, soon after ReEmployME went live, both existing and new unemployed benefits claimants started complaining that they had difficulty navigating the new online system, especially when trying to use the required Work Search log. The log shows whether a claimant is actively seeking work and with what employer. Without filling in the log, benefits are terminated for an existing claimant or denied for a new claimant. ReEmployME requires that the logs be filled in online rather than by paper, as was allowed in Maine’s previous UI system. Further, the logs could only be filed on Sundays because they had to show the previous week’s job searches.

Adding to the disarray, ReEmployME’s delayed launch coincided with Maine’s uptick in seasonable unemployment, which threw more people onto the new system than originally expected. Maine’s Department of Labor (DOL) claimed it couldn’t delay ReEmployME’s launch any later than December because of both financial constraints and potential schedule impacts to the launch of the tax portion of ReEmployME, which is scheduled for this coming August.

The DOL blamed most of the complaints being voiced about ReEmployME on users’ errors and asked claimants to be patient as they learned how to use the new system. Even a Mississippi MDES employee, who came to help Maine support the launch of ReEmployME, said the problems experienced were “an uncomfortable, but natural part of the [learning] process” that Mississippi also went through when it launched its first version of Access MS years before. The apparent expectation of the DOL executive management was that the turmoil would subside as users became more experienced with ReEmployME.

Instead, claimant complaints grew even louder, leading to legislative hearings in February and earlier this month. At both hearings, the DOL downplayed the complaints, reiterating that the problems were attributable to individual user error. The Department did acknowledge that a few, small and “isolated” flaws had been discovered and corrected, but stated also that it was generally pleased with its new system, which was performing as expected.

Soon after the latest hearings were held, a bombshell hit the news media that painted an all too familiar picture [pdf] of a system likely released before its time. Maine’s Morning Sentinel newspaper published excerpts of a confidential memo from a DOL employee that called ReEmployME a “failure.” The memo stated that the system was launched despite objections from Department staff concerning the functionality of the baseline UI system that Maine was supposed to tailor.

The memo claimed, for example, that the baseline UI software was buggy and that it contained functionality needed only by Mississippi, which had not been removed as required. The memo further claimed that on top of existing bugs, “hundreds of computer software problems continue[d] to arise” after ReEmployME was deployed.

The most damaging allegations in the memo were that ReEmployME leadership misled legislators on the true nature and extent of the problems with the system, as well as ordered that hundreds of requests for help from claimants be destroyed. Several of the allegations have been supposedly independently corroborated by others who worked on ReEmployME. These individuals told the Sentinel that the morale of state employees working on ReEmployME was extremely poor, with employees fearing they would be retaliated against if they spoke out about the true state of affairs.

The DOL, after initially remaining silent about the claims in the memo, finally responded late this week by angrily denouncing the allegations as “unsubstantiated.” It categorically denied that any claimants’ requests for help were destroyed, saying such accusations were “baseless and unequivocally false.” While admitting that there had been some “challenges and issues during the early stages of the rollout,” the Department insists that the “system is now working as intended.”

Brushing the denials aside, some legislators are calling for an in-depth investigation into ReEmployME’s development and launch―which the DOL opposes as a waste of government time and resources, but which is probably warranted. It is important to determine how many problems are due to Maine’s specific UI system requirements, implementation approach, or launch decision, or whether there is something fundamentally flawed with the underlying core UI system.

Given that Mississippi hasn’t experienced the same vociferous user complaints, it’s probably the former more than the latter. That said, I would wager the amount of state-specific tailoring and subsequent system testing required is much greater than anyone in Maine (or Mississippi) originally thought.

I don’t doubt that officials in Rhode Island and Connecticut are watching what is happening in Maine closely, given that they plan to start rolling out their specific versions of the UI system in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Hopefully both states will learn from Maine’s experience.

Sharing infrastructure IT systems among states is definitely an idea that should be highly encouraged and supported. However, transparency about the difficulties encountered and why they occurred is a must. The memo and DOL’s response to it show that Maine has a ways to go in this department.