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TECH CHECK: Department of Labor ramps up to handle "unprecedented" traffic

Keila Szpaller, Missoulian

The weekend of March 21 and 22, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Treasure State with force, and a rush of Montanans newly out of work started filing unemployment claims. To do so, they landed on montanaworks.gov.

George Parisot, chief information officer with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, described the crush of activity from Montanans on the website as “certainly an unprecedented number of folks.”

More than 14,000 people applied for unemployment benefits that week in March, up 1,700% from the previous week and 1,917% more than the same week last year, according to the Associated Press. Initially, many ran into snags, slowdowns and unsuccessful attempts to sign up for benefits.

For technology crews with both the Department of Labor and the State Information Technology Services Division, the weekend required “all hands on deck.” It meant scaling up the system to handle the increase in volume while transitioning staff to remote work at the same time.

For those state employees on the job, the tasks at hand were directly connected to the well-being of Montana workers and their families relying on checks. Parisot said roughly 45 people work in the Technology Services Division in the Department of Labor, and 20 of them worked directly on the project to ramp up montanaworks.gov.

“It is a big responsibility,” said Parisot, who has worked for the state of Montana for roughly 22 years. “I couldn’t tell you when the feeling this is really huge happened, but I think all of our staff realized that this is really important to the people of Montana to get these benefits out there as quickly as possible.”

Tim Bottenfield, chief information officer and division administrator for the State Information Technology Services Division, said the state was prepared to increase its capabilities in part because of the foresight of the Montana Legislature years ago, along with the vision of his predecessors and colleagues, such as Chief Technology Officer Matt Van Syckle. 

Lawmakers funded two data centers that came online roughly a decade ago, one in Helena and one in Miles City, he said, and state IT professionals kept them up to date so they could best support state agencies.

“Those data centers, even today 10 years later, are very state-of-the-art,” Bottenfield said. 

Parisot, of Great Falls, said his experience as a veteran of the Army National Guard helped him approach the colossal project of bolstering Montanaworks.gov. “You just work to solve one problem at a time and plan for the next problem coming down the road, and you work as a team.”

He said the team included people within his technology division along with leadership of the Department of Labor, Department of Administration and the Governor’s Office.

"That weekend in March, the web designers, software developers, tech architects, and other crew worked to figure out where capacity was at and how to quickly increase it to support “what we saw was a large influx of claims.”

“So we had to do a lot of analysis and understand what the impact is and what the volume is and really come up with a plan to ensure that things were stable,” Parisot said. “And we did have some issues that weekend just with the numbers of claimants.”

Out of the gate, they took steps to make changes to the system and rebuilt a portion of the website to ensure its stability, Parisot said. They identified specific features that were compromising the system and stripped the application down to “really bare bones to make sure it would keep up with the large volume we were seeing.”

That weekend, many of the staff worked 24 or 36 hours straight to keep the application up and running and continually improve it, Parisot said. “We’re working even now to support and expand the capabilities of that system.”

Since that first weekend, the agency quadrupled the capacity of its web and application servers, he said. They’re working to not only support the load but to ensure there’s redundancy in the system.

“That’s critical when you build your infrastructure like that,” Parisot said.

Bottenfield said the data centers were able to support the increased need of both the Department of Labor and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, the state agencies that required the most augmented capacity in responding to the pandemic.

The work to modify Montanaworks.gov to accommodate the onslaught of new users took place under the constraints of social distancing, so the war room was a virtual one. “We are obviously maintaining social distance … and trying to figure out how to balance conference calls with being at home with home internet and having kids and dogs and cats on the call with you too,” Parisot said.

Bottenfield’s team helped people from all state departments transition to working out of the office. He said he was pleased at the agility of the division and its ability to be quickly responsive.

“We were pretty well prepared to support a quick transition to a remote workforce,” Bottenfield said. “We had several options for agencies to choose from in getting their staff connected to the tools that they would need to work from home.

“I’ll emphasize here that we are fairly nimble and agile and have the ability to scale our service up or down rather quickly, so that was a big advantage for us. I think the biggest challenge for agencies was to determine which connectivity services were the best for their employees and making sure that they had the proper equipment to send them home with.

“In some cases, agencies did need to procure devices for employees to use at home.”

At this point, Bottenfield said employees seem to be getting comfortable working from home. “At least for now, we have gotten to the point that this is our new normal, and we’re realizing that we can work this way and still provide great service and support to the citizens of Montana.”

From March 23 through April 1, the Department of Labor announced it had deposited 35,000 unemployment payments to Montanans; the following week, the agency deposited 24,000 checks. The department estimated it had processed a total of $7.8 million in just one week.

Bottenfield said he’s on conference calls with CIOs from other states, and many haven’t been able to act as quickly. He said it’s helpful to be a state with fewer employees who need to adjust, but also ones who are willing to work together. 

“If we ran into a stumbling block with this piece of technology, there were so many great brains working on it together,” Bottenfield said, and a solution would emerge. “It was really cool to see that.”

But work remains to smooth out the website. In particular, Parisot and Bottenfield both said the phones have been overloaded, and state employees are trying to tweak the website so as many callers as possible can get their questions answered online. 

They also want the application process to be less arduous, especially for people who have never filed a claim before.

“It’s not an easy process, and there needs to be some help there,” Bottenfield said.

And the support has real impacts on people’s lives, Parisot said.

“It’s a little emotional, too, if you think about all the folks who are affected you’re here to support,” Parisot said. “ … When we bring in contractors and other folks, we explain to them the criticality. We all understand. It’s our neighbors, it’s our friends and family that might be affected.

"It’s important.”

This story appears in Vol. 1 Issue 2 of Missoula Business, a publication that reports on emerging trends and goes beyond the numbers to look at the insights and drive of the people leading Missoula forward. Find the second issue inserted in the Sunday print Missoulian and soon in the e-edition, and read the stories on Missoulian.com

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