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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.

Go deeper

The Americans who most need a stimulus

Expand chart
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

One group of Americans needs a fresh stimulus package more than any other: The 2.4 million Americans — and rising — who have been unemployed for more than six months.

Why it matters: While the economic recession looks like it ended in April, rising long-term unemployment acts as a drag on the broader economy. Without new stimulus, the number of jobless could end up being almost as bad as the Great Recession of 2008-9.

Huge wildfire reaches edge of Sequoia National Park

A plume of smoke and flames rise into the air as the fire burns towards Moro Rock during the KNP Complex fire in the Sequoia National Park near Three Rivers, California, on Saturday. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Firefighters in Sequoia National Park were working into the night after two wildfires merged to reach the Giant Forest Saturday.

Why it matters: This forest contains over 2,000 giant sequoias, including the General Sherman Tree — considered the world's largest by volume. Park officials wrapped the trees in foil last week as the Paradise and Colony Fires, now known as the KNP Complex Fire, neared. And officials said early Sunday protection efforts appeared to be working.

3 hours ago - World

U.S. drone strike victims' families in Afghanistan seek compensation

A relative of Ezmarai Ahmadi, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike, looks at the wreckage of a vehicle that was damaged in the strike in the Kwaja Burga neighbourhood of Kabul on Saturday. Photo: Hoshang Hashimi AFP via Getty Images

Relatives of 10 Afghans killed by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul last month said Saturday they want to see punishment and compensation over the deaths.

Driving the news: The relatives said it's "good news" that the U.S. had "officially admitted" that "they had attacked innocents" in the Aug. 29 strike that killed Zamarai Ahmadi, an aid worker with a U.S.-based group, and nine family members, but they still need "justice," per AFP.