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PA works to tackle unemployment compensation problems. Advocates want the job done right.

Ashton Jones / WESA This file photo shows demonstrators over the summer protesting the state's Department of Labor and Industry. The protest was organized by the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee.
Ashton Jones / WESA This file photo shows demonstrators over the summer protesting the state's Department of Labor and Industry. The protest was organized by the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee.

WSKG - Advocates say some people applying for state unemployment benefits have had trouble doing so for the last two years. They’re asking Pennsylvania’s Labor & Industry Department to more fully address those issues.

Unemployment claims in the Keystone State have been dropping as the coronavirus pandemic wanes.  During the initial wave in the spring of 2020, more than a million people were regularly filing claims. The latest state data shows around 7,500 people filed new claims this past week – while about 87,500 were filing continuing claims.

But some in the United Steelworkers union say they aren’t getting paid when they ask for aid during furloughs. Union member Bob Snyder said he’s had repeated difficulty logging on to an online benefits system that was revamped last summer.

“I’ve worked 38 years at the same company and we’ve always had options of being laid off for one to two weeks,” Snyder said. “But I can’t even get into the system right now. It’s not accepting a password and when I recreate a password, it’s still not accepting it.

“We’ve had three weeks of layoffs and we still have employees that have not been paid and probably will not be paid,” he added.

Barney Oursler, director of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, said his group has been helping people who are having trouble verifying their identity online. The Labor & Industry department contracted with a company called ID.me last year in an effort to prevent fraudsters from pilfering unemployment checks.

A person now has to verify their identity before any benefits are paid out, which involves uploading documents and taking a selfie with a smartphone. Oursler said that has been tough for some people. On top of that, he added, some are still waiting for agency workers to make a decision about their application – weeks and even months on.

“We find people just don’t understand the complexities of what they’re facing when they’re trying to get their unemployment [sic],” he said. “We have tons of people who still can’t get a decision.”

Labor & Industry leaders say the agency is still recovering from the pandemic. Secretary Jennifer Berrier the unemployment system was not built to withstand the crush of people that needed help as the crisis set in.

“The amount of volume we were dealing with was ten times higher than the great recession,” Berrier said. “It was a voluminous workload with significant staffing shortages and it happened completely unexpectedly.”

Staffing levels were low because the unemployment rate was low in the years leading up to the pandemic. Employees that remained were overwhelmed. At the same time, the federal government was asking states to set up programs to help gig workers and others that would usually not qualify for unemployment checks.

That led to delays in claim processing and slow call center response times. Plus, the state did not verify identities the way it does now. That left the door open to thieves who stole billions of dollars in aid.

Even now, Berrier said, 66,000 people have yet to find out if they qualify for aid. She added complicated cases – ranging from tiny application errors to employer verification – are taking an average of three months to process. That backlog may not be cleared for years to come.

“Back during the recession of 2009, we didn’t clear our backlogs and really get on firm footing until 2015, so we’ll be dealing with the fallout from the pandemic for a couple of years,” Berrier said.

“We will work as steadfastly as we can and provide the best service that we can provide for Pennsylvanians.”

The agency said it now has 400 full-time staffers answering unemployment questions over the phone. Eighty of those call center workers began their jobs last month. Around the same time, L&I began offering in-person unemployment benefits help at its 58 regional Career Link offices.

Plus, an advisory committee that gets together whenever unemployment system issues come up will meet again over the next few months. The State Advisory Council on Unemployment Compensation is expected to hear from groups like the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee about long-standing issues, then work with them to come up with fixes.

Oursler said the panel’s suggestions should be well thought-out.

“We’re hoping the members of this council will do a really hard assessment of what has been broken in the last two years – and what continues to be broken – and make an agenda of how this can be addressed by the next administration,” he said.

Berrier said Labor & Industry officials want to work “collaboratively” with people like Oursler to do just that.

“I think we’re all trying to achieve the same purpose, and that is to have a system that serves people the way it’s supposed to,” she said.