Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A collaboration with Amazon Web Services (AWS) has helped Rhode Island survive an unprecedented torrent of unemployment claims.

Why it matters: While tech companies were well-positioned to pivot to digital-first business in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown, state governments faced paralysis. With the pandemic continuing and lockdowns potentially returning, states will need to innovate to keep their systems running.

By the numbers: More than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the start of the pandemic.

  • Rhode Island, which has a population of just over 1 million people, received more than 140,000 jobless claims in the 45 days after a state of emergency was declared on March 9.

At the onset of the crisis, the state was trying to process those claims using 30-year-old systems. And since Rhode Island requires the unemployed to file a continuing claim each week to get benefits, "It looked like we could be facing 200,000 people calling within a 12-hour period," says Scott Jensen, the director of Rhode Island's department of labor and training.

  • At the start of the crisis, the department could only handle 75 concurrent calls. "The math didn't work anymore," says Jensen.

What happened: Rhode Island reached out to AWS, which was working to update the technological infrastructure of state governments.

  • AWS helped install Amazon Connect, the company's cloud-based contact center solution, the same system Amazon uses to handle the Black Friday sales event. That gave the department the ability to process up to 2,000 concurrent calls, ensuring that "no one was getting a busy signal."

What they're saying: "Instead of having to hire a new labor force, you can use your existing employees and scale them so they don't need to be in a call center," says Teresa Carlson, vice-president of the worldwide public sector at AWS. "They can be virtual instead."

  • AWS has worked with other states on updating unemployment systems, including Massachusetts, as has its cloud competitor Google.

The bottom line: State governments need to move fast to catch up with the digital transformation forced by the pandemic.

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