More than 50,000 Pennsylvania residents have lost unemployment benefits since last summer because they failed to meet a new state requirement to register on a job-listings website.
Advocates for the unemployed attribute the problem to technical errors by the state, the nation's digital divide, and a lack of awareness of the new rule.
Under the law, which the General Assembly approved in 2011 and the state began enforcing in August 2013, those who receive unemployment compensation must sign up for the state-run jobgateway.pa.gov within 30 days. State officials said the regulation would help more unemployed Pennsylvanians find work.
Between September 2013 and April, unemployment benefits were halted for about 51,200 applicants — or roughly one in 10 — who did not enroll in time, according to data obtained by WHYY.
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Pennsylvania officials said they do not know how long the average person has stopped receiving benefits. Sharon Dietrich, an attorney at the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Community Legal Services, estimated it has been days and even weeks.
"That could be the difference between being able to pay the rent and not, facing a utilities cutoff or eviction notice or not, or even being able to adequately feed your family," she said.
Dietrich said some people are not signing up for the site right away because they don't have Internet access or are computer-illiterate.
"We live in a world in which there still is quite a digital divide," she said. "I think a lot of people who implement public benefits programs don't grasp [that]."
[Community Legal Services of Philadelphia offers instructions for how to register for work online to keep your unemployment compensation benefits.]
Difficulties and some progress
The state notifies all unemployment compensation recipients that they must sign up for the jobs site through several mailings, according to Sara Goulet, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Industry. If they apply for benefits over the phone, she said, they are also informed of the rule then.
Philadelphia resident Kea Hollimon, 28, said that when she applied for unemployment compensation on the phone last year, no one told her she needed to register on the jobs site. She only became aware of the requirement once she stopped receiving unemployment benefits, she said.
Hollimon does not have Internet access at home and tried to sign up on her mobile phone, but said it was difficult.
"It was just frustrating," she said. "I felt like I'm trying to do this, but I'm still being stopped."
Eventually, she signed up on the jobs site at a brick-and-mortar CareerLink, a state facility that provides free employment services.
Goulet, the Labor and Industry spokeswoman, said the state has since revamped its jobs site so it is more user-friendly. For instance, it is now easier for applicants to tell that they have finished enrolling, she said.
"We want to make it as simple as possible for people so they're not going for any period of time without benefits," said Goulet. "If they're eligible for them, we want them to receive them. But we want to make it as easy for them to also get re-employed."
Advocates for the unemployed said some Spanish-speaking applicants did not know about the new requirement because of a technical problem that resulted in the state sending them materials in English.
Language, location remain issues
Goulet confirmed that Spanish-speaking residents who apply for unemployment benefits online do not receive documents in Spanish. If they apply on the phone, however, she said they get Spanish materials. She blamed the mix-up on an "IT issue," and said the state is working to fix it.
If residents don't have Internet access at home, Goulet said they can register on the jobs site at one of the state's 67 CareerLink centers.
That works better in more populated areas, however. Almost 15 percent of the state's counties do not have a CareerLink.