• New Jersey's unemployment computer system dates to the 1980s and runs on COBOL, a programming language taught by few schools
  • COBOL programmers average 58 years of age and are retiring at a rate of 10% a year
  • New Jersey saw more than 206,000 claims filed in the week ended March 28 compared to fewer than 6,900 the 13th week of 2019


New Jersey officials have put out a call for programmers to help speed up unemployment claim processing as more people lose their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic. There’s just one problem: The system is 40 years old and runs COBOL, a programming language that isn’t really being taught anymore.

Though COBOL -- common business-oriented language – systems still handle an estimated $3 trillion in commerce every day, the language was introduced in the 1960s and has fallen out of favor. IBM estimates there are 240 billion lines of COBOL in operation with 5 billion more added annually, but the number of programmers who can handle it is shrinking, with the average age 58 and 10% retiring annually.

The problem with recruiting COBOL programmers is that most are in the age group most vulnerable to COVID-19.

New Jersey’s unemployment insurance computer system dates to the 1980s and has been crashing frequently under the increased load from coronavirus layoffs. The number of claims is expected to increase further as benefits are opened to contract workers, the self-employed and gig workers made newly eligible under the $2.2 trillion economic relief package approved by Congress last month.

New Jersey Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said Saturday the state’s unemployment system has been overwhelmed by the wave of layoffs and furloughs that has seen 10 million people file initial claims in the two weeks ended March 28.

In the state, 206,253 claims were submitted between March 22 and the 28th, compared to 6,894 claims filed in the 13th week of 2019. The number eclipsed the Great Recession and Superstorm Sandy. The preceding week, 155,815 claims were filed, and the two weeks taken together account for 75% of claims submitted 2019.

"There is nothing I want more than to put your hard-earned benefits into your family budget sooner," Asaro-Angelo said during the governor’s daily briefing.

New Jersey has been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, reporting at least 41,090 confirmed infections and 1,003 deaths.

COBOL was developed in the 1960s and still is used to process some $3 trillion in financial transactions daily although few programmers are learning the language anymore. Rainer Gerhards/Wikimedia Commons