COBOL accounting software delays California pay cuts
The State of California needs $17 billion, which Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to scrape together by temporarily cutting the wages of 200,000 state employees to $6.55 an hour and sacking others. To fend off the looming budget crisis, pay cheques starting next month will be significantly smaller. But that is not as easy as it sounds. According to the local daily newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, the payroll software is written in COBOL.
Trying to find experts still working in COBOL is difficult. Schwarzenegger may have to pull them out of retirement. Another of COBOL code's problems is that its documentation, when it exists at all, often contains gaps. That too means that changing the accounting system could take several months, wrote Treasurer John Chiang in a letter to the governor. There appears to be more to this than just the systems inability to comply with the Governors instructions. According to the newspaper report, Chiang is disputing the Governor's legal right to make the pay cuts and refuses to implement them.
It was only a matter of time before the payroll situation would escalate. The state of California has made a number of attempts in previous years to modernize the payroll software, but they all failed to get approval in the state budget, which has grown to an estimated $177 million.
COBOL was the most-used programming language for business applications in the 60s and 70s. Its syntax is based on natural English language. Computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper took the lead in developing COBOL, standardising it for the first time in 1960. The limitation of the year field to two digits made COBOL synonymous with the Millennium Bug.