New Massachusetts unemployment insurance employer Web site crashes and burns upon launch

By | January 14, 2010

(Simulblogged at

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a convoluted(*) unemployment insurance system, under which employers are required to make various quarterly and annual filings and quarterly payments involving at least two different state agencies.

This system is administered by the Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA), who decided to replace their old, paper-based system with a Web-based system called QUEST (“Quality Unemployment System Transformation”). The DUA promised QUEST would bring countless improvements: one-stop shopping, filings for all agencies in one place, faster filings, less wasted paper, reduced printing and postage costs, reduced data entry costs, no more data transcription errors, etc., etc. You’ve no doubt heard it all before.

QUEST went live at the beginning of 2010. As of the go-live date, the usage of QUEST for all employer unemployment insurance transactions was mandatory; paper filings were no longer permitted. I.e., the DUA went straight from paper filings only to on-line filings only, with no transition period or overlap.(**)

It would be an understatement to say that the QUEST go-live is not going well; in fact, it is a disaster. Some examples of the issues I’ve experienced trying to use the new system today to do my filing for the last quarter of 2009:

  • I received an email message informing me that there was correspondence in my QUEST inbox, and I should log into QUEST to read it. When I log into QUEST and click on the link for the correspondence in question, I get a .NET error page.
  • When I attempted to enter my quarterly filing numbers, I was asked to fill in the fields “UI gross wages”, “UI taxable wages”, and “UHI taxable wages”, with no explanation on the form or anywhere else on the site of what these terms mean or how to determine the correct amounts. A DUA employee with whom I spoke today informed me that those words were supposed to be links that I could click on for definitions, but for some reason the links were missing from the page.
  • The two DUA employees with whom I spoke today both said that the new system is having innumerable problems across the board.
  • The first phone number I called today in an attempt to get help with QUEST was so swamped that I was not even given the option of waiting on hold — a recording told me they were too busy to help me and I should call back later, and then I was disconnected.
  • A little while ago I tried to click on the QUEST login link on the DUA Web page and instead reached a DUA Web site error page indicating that the page I was trying to access had moved or was temporarily unavailable, or some such thing.
  • Some time after that, I tried again, and this time I actually got into the QUEST application, at which point I was greeted with a different error: “Error: You have reached the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance. The Quest Unemployment System is temporarily unavailable due to scheduled maintenance in order to better serve you. Please try your request again later. We appreciate your understanding.” Given everything else that’s going on, it seems highly unlikely to me that it is any way accurate to claim that this outage was “scheduled”.
  • Earlier today, a new message showed up on the DUA Web site:
    Additional Time for 4th Quarter Filing and Account Activation
    >Two-week grace period for filing 4th Quarter Employment and Wage Detail Report. New deadline: February 16, 2010. Penalties apply after deadline. More.>Although the January 8th deadline has passed, you can still activate your account without a late penalty. Please activate your account as soon as possible to avoid the expected high volume of calls and web traffic near the filing deadline.

As is typical in government bureaucracies facing epic disasters, there has been no public disclosure of the fact that there is a problem, or of what is being done to fix it, or of the ETA for when it will be fixed. It remains to be seen whether anything will be disclosed later, or whether any heads will roll at the DUA in recognition of this monumental cock-up.

(*)Perhaps the system does not seem so convoluted to businesses, but it does to me, a “household employer” who is required to participate in it only because I’ve made the seemingly naive decision of attempting to abide by the law while employing a babysitter for six hours per week.

(**)At least, requiring QUEST filing as of 1/1/2010 seems to have been their original plan. However, a letter sent to employers January 14 encourages the use QUEST for filing 4Q2009 reports, which would seem to imply that not using QUEST is in fact an option. If so, it’s a difficult option to exercise, since all instructions and forms for filing on paper appear to have been removed from Web site, or at least cunningly hidden.

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21 thoughts on “New Massachusetts unemployment insurance employer Web site crashes and burns upon launch

  1. John Hondrogen

    I agree that the new QUEST system is a mess. And this is 1 year into the new system. The old system worked fine for paying employer taxes. The new web site is horrible. Poor graphical interface, nonexistent help, no telephone support. I don’t know who designed the site, but you should fire them. My 16 year old could build a better site.

  2. Cheryl

    I am so glad to hear I’m not alone fighting with the Quest website.
    I do accounting work for a small company – less then 6 employees – and have spend endless hours on this usually small task.
    And now for the first quarter of 2010 we’ve been charges 11% for unemployment – which I’m sure is wrong. It’s always been close to 3% – Unbelievable! Do you think I can get it corrected?

  3. Trish

    I just tried to going on DUA inputted username password, it doesn’t take it. There is no forgott password buttom no telephone number to call. This is insane. As a bookkeeper I have 20 clients that I file their payroll taxes, what was DUA thinking of. Good thing I have someone in the DUA office that can help or transfer me to someone that knows something, hopefully.

  4. jmh

    I’m glad to be among good company… I had begun to wonder if it was just me. You gotta wonder who the program was designed by… It has really been a debacle. I work with this type of stuff all the time and usually can find my way around without too much difficulty but, every part of this from the time line, registration process on to the reporting was so unfriendly. Made me wonder how folks who were unfamiliar with on-line web sites were managing.

  5. Chris

    Ok, I finally got all 124 employees on record into the QUEST system and supposedly filed, paid and completed the whole damned thing today. I worked from 9:00 to 3:00 today with the telephone on speaker, waiting for them to pick up. After an hour and a half, picked up and started ringing. No one picked it up on their end for over 40 minutes; they left it ringing (and so did I). I finally called back and after another 40 minutes, someone disconnected me. I called back and waited another hour and a half for someone to pick up. When she did, I tried to explain that I copied their template, inserted my data, saved it as both a .txt and a .csv file and tried to upload. Every time I was told all records were in fatal error. She was less than helpful and when she tried to put me on hold, she disconnected me!!!

    So, without the DUA’s help, here is what I did and found to work:

    1. Copy their template and save it as a .csv on your computer.

    2. In their template, highlight the data cells they provide as examples and under FORMAT, CELLS, select “Text”. Change all the cells to text before beginning anything else. There’s a reason; if you cut and paste Social Security numbers or any other data that begins with a zero, the zero will disappear.

    3. If you use Quickbooks or another program that allows you to export payroll data, export to a new worksheet. You can cut and paste some of the data as needed, but make sure the zeros do not disappear.

    4. Following their template, enter your Employer ID (your DUA number, not your Federal EIN), etc., etc., until you have each employee complete. Make sure under each month that a person worked there is either a 0 or a 1 to indicate they worked or not.

    5. Enter your payroll data, but when you get to the column where you are asked to enter number of hours worked in the quarter, YOU MUST ROUND UP. QUEST will kick back any exact numbers (like 123.4 hours; you need to round it to 123 or it will not be accepted for that person).

    6. SAVE YOUR WORK!!!

    7. Do the file upload and, GOD willing, it will read the data and tell you if there are any errors. The good thing here is that it tells you which line and what item is in error. You can go back to your file, correct it and upload again.

    Now, if the DUA had taken a couple simple steps, I would have been done last week.

    First, they should put a bold note next to the “Manual” data entry selection to tell you that no more than 100 employees can be entered that way. “For employers with 101 or more employees, you must select File Upload”.

    Second, the data template that we need to use should be clearly mentioned and linked when we choose “delimited” file upload. Instead, it’s a side-bar on a completely different web page. If you don’t know it’s there, you’ll never think to look for it.

    Third, the template should clearly state to make sure all cells are in text format (Format-Cells-text) and not just tell us to save it as .csv or .txt. They should also clearly state that hours worked must be rounded up to a whole number.

    I hope this all makes sense. If any of these ideas show up on their web page in the near future, I want full credit emblazoned across the page, plus a consulting fee paid to me for becoming a mind-reader.

    Now, in the event you think I’m done, I’m not. Vengence is mine!! I’m going to call them again on Friday and stay on hold as long as it takes to tell them what assholes they are. If they hang up, I’m going to call back. The war is on!

  6. Sue

    I agree that this is one of the worst moves made by the DUA. It looks like someone used 1985 technology to create this new Quest system. The MAWebfile system is far superior and I do not know who had the presence of mind to fix what was not broken. I can answer part of your problem about getting the messages that the system is unavailable or has been temporarily moved. This new system is only available for log-in Monday – Friday 7am to 7pm, no nights, no weekends, no holidays. If you are in the middle of a filing and 7pm hits, as I was the other night, you get booted out. Very poor implementation and support for a mandatory filing system.

  7. Chris

    It gets better; I finally found out how to “convert” my Excel spreadsheet into their .csv and .txt file formats, but every time I try to upload, it tells me every field is a fatal error and rejects my upload.

    So, now not only can I not manually enter the data, my file upload is not accepted. Give me a fax number and I’ll send you the data and you can deal with it. I’m sick of this. I have now been on hold for five days. Today, from 9:00 to 12:00 (so far) no one has picked up. Monday, when I did get a human, she was less than helpful. Then, she reminds me the due date is the 16th!! Like I care. At this point, you’ll take it when you straighten out this garbage.

  8. Susanne

    Never in my ebtire career have I seen such a mishandling of a new system. WHAT HAPPENED TO BETA TESTING!

  9. Scott

    The secretary of DUA should be fired…The DOR version of this worked just fine…This was a waste of taxpayer money…maybe DUA should have spent programming money on an internal interface to the old DOR system..that would have been pretty seamless for them and required no change to the DOR’;s webfile system

  10. Chris

    This new system is great; I don’t know why you’re complaining. I’ve got 125 employees and when I went in, I had no trouble HAND-ENTERING 100 of them. Sadly, when I went to add another page, it told me that the max was 100. So, I guess I don’t have to pay the rest!!

    I’ve been on hold for days with no one picking up. I was going to do the data upload, but the instructions are written in government and I can’t make heads or tails as to how to export from Quickbooks to Excel and then change the setup of the report to meet their requirements. At this point I have been sitting on speaker phone hold for 42 minutes (second time this morning). I’ve been to Ebay, Craigslist, checked my email, done actual work for my company, etc., and still no one can be bothered to pick up and help me.

    If anyone has an address for the Quarterly Reporting department or the QUEST Center, please post it and I will drive there with my paper reports in the old style and deliver them. Let them figure out what to do with it.

  11. Carter

    Thank you so much..have been banging my head against the wall.

  12. jik Post author

    See this page, which helps a little to clarify things. In a nutshell:

    UI gross wages
    Total of all employees’ gross wages. I think this is equvalent to what you would report in box 1 of form W-2.
    UI taxable wages
    Wages up to $14,000 per employee. In other words, you only need to pay unemployment insurance tax for the first $14,000 of each employee’s gross annual wages, so subtract each employee’s excess over $14,000 from the “UI gross wages” figure to arrive at the “UI taxable wages” amount.
    UHI taxable wages
    The same amount as “UI taxable wages,” but only if you have six or more employees — you aren’t required to pay UHI tax if you have fewer employees.

    Isn’t it wonderful that I have to explain this stuff because the DUA can’t be bothered to explain it properly on their Web site?

  13. Carter

    Can anyone help with what figures go into the “UI gross wages”, “UI taxable wages”, and “UHI taxable wages”, as I have been on hold as well.

  14. Denise Fisher

    I work for a payroll company and am having the WORST time dealing with this new Quest website!!!! I’m trying to figure it all out myself now instead of callin Mass. and having to wait on hold for hours. I finally got the UI and UHI forms submitted…..I think, I guess I’ll find out Monday if they were accepted! I can’t submit this new Employee Wage Detail report without getting errors!!! Does anyone know anything about submitting this new information in the .csv format?????? I used THEIR template to enter all the employee info, which took hours, but it keeps rejecting!! the latest error code is “invalid year and quarter” I have entered 20094, which is on thier template but it’s not working! help!!

  15. jik Post author

    They actually published my comment on the DUA blog I referenced above. Remarkable.

  16. jik Post author

    Check out this job posting which just appeared on the Massachusetts state jobs site:

    Functional Title: Quality Unemployment System Transformation (QUEST) Project Director

    The Quality Unemployment System Transformation (QUEST) Program (Legacy System Replacement Effort) Project Director is responsible for leading the initiative to replace the Division of Unemployment Assistance (DUA’s) existing mainframe-based support unemployment insurance (UI) applications with a newly designed and developed support system….

    I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that they’re looking to hire a new project director only a few days after the disastrous debut of the first component of the new QUEST system.

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  18. Kraken

    This is a clear case of “If it ain’t broke….” I’ve made my DUA deposits through the DOR website every quarter for five years now. It was as simple and painless as remitting taxes can ever be. Although I somehow dodged all of the absurdity described in your post, it took at least 20 minutes to pay up through Quest. Hard to believe they rolled out an early 1990s-era website in 2010 — and then botched the job. I hope that they’ll straighten it out before Q1 taxes are due in April…I don’t suppose there’s a ghost of a chance that they’ll simply revert to the DOR form that has worked fine for all these years.

  19. Kamal Jain

    Sadly, you are not the first person I’ve heard about this from, nor do I expect you will be the last. One of my associates was opining about this the other day and rhetorically asked “How do these companies win contracts?” Before I could do more than smile and begin to say something, he interrupted me and said “Yeah…I know.”

    Question is, aside from public acknowledgment of the issues, and apologies for the trouble this is causing to individuals and businesses who have to try to use the new system, where is the transparency in the project overall:
    – What was the reason for the change and what were the goals fo the project?
    – Where is the RFP?
    – What bids came in?
    – How close to bid did the overall cost/invoice come in?
    – Was the project completed as expected and on time?
    – Etc.?


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