Pennsylvania in early March operated an unemployment compensation office severely unprepared to handle a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.
Its computer system is over four decades old, so ancient it has been unable to process claims by people who made six-figure salaries. Its staffing levels were thin, in tune with an economy that had the highest employment rates in a lifetime.
Roughly two months into the crisis, the state's Labor and Industry Department is still playing catchup, and roughly three out of every 10 claims are still unprocessed, officials said Monday.
"I know that this is a difficult time for many Pennsylvanians," L&I Secretary Jerry Oleksiak said. "I want to say to all those citizens: We are doing all we can. We know it has been frustrating. We want to get you what you need."
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Pennsylvania has already paid out $5.3 billion in unemployment compensation, including more than $1 billion through the federal Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program. That's the $600 extra in addition to the tradition unemployment payments.
The overall total is three times the amount of unemployment compensation paid out in Pennsylvania in all of 2019.
Oleksiak said the system which buckled under the initial weight of 1.7 million Pennsylvanians who lost their jobs since March has gotten stronger. There are now 900 state workers taking calls and processing claims, he said.
That includes hundreds of workers pulled from other state departments, and several dozen retired employees who have returned to work.
Still, there are Pennsylvanians like Colleen Angeli, who is unemployed and has yet to receive a dime.
Angeli, a 60-year-old receptionist from Hershey, said last week that she has yet to receive an identification number from the unemployment office, let alone a determination letter that would tell her she’s been approved or how much she can expect to receive. The most infuriating part is she can’t get anyone on the phone to give her an update. Email isn’t any better — the agency has a 25-day backlog.
“I’m one of those paycheck to paycheck people,” said Angeli, and without unemployment, she’ll have to pick and choose which bills to pay. “If I make my rent payment, I can’t pay my other bills. If I pay my other bills, I can’t pay my rent.”
The state's chief fiscal watchdog, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, warned in 2017 that the unemployment office’s mainframe computer was “being held together with bubble gum and rubber bands.” He said Tuesday that while the timing of the pandemic was unforeseeable, it’s been known for years that an economic recession and resulting spike in unemployment claims would overwhelm the system.
“I think they did the best they could with the funding they had," DePasquale said. "They needed more help from funding through the budget process to really fix this system. I do believe there are a lot of very dedicated employees there that are dealing with the angry phone calls, doing the best they can. It’s not their fault.”
A new claims system, more than a decade in the works, is finally projected to launch in October.
“We wish we had it before the pandemic started, but timing’s everything,” said Susan Dickinson, director of the state Office of Unemployment Compensation Benefits Policy.
Separately, the agency is preparing to administer a new federal benefits program, called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, for self-employed and gig-economy workers and others barred from receiving traditional unemployment. The state has processed more than 100,000 of those claims since the platform went live April 18, and payments are expected to begin this week.
Carolyn Butera, an independent contractor who processes real estate transactions, applied for the new unemployment program and is waiting for the money to start flowing. She said people like her were deprived of the ability to earn a living under Wolf’s business shutdown.
Those same workers have now gone more than a month without any income, she said.
“You left everyone without a job,” Butera said. “How did you not know this many people were going to be filing?”
Here are some links that provide details about Pennsylvania's unemployment compensation system and how it is administering the federal FPUC and PUA programs.
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) (independent contractors, gig workers, others)
Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) (extra $600 per week)