Getting an answer from Pennsylvania’s unemployment office takes patience, persistence, and perhaps multiple phones calling at once.
Some jobless workers said they’ve dialed the agency hundreds of times in a day to get beyond the busy signal. Emails can go unanswered for weeks. Some workers, desperate for financial help, said they start calling as soon as the office opens at 8 a.m. Others try to increase their chances of reaching someone by dialing on multiple phones at once.
“You wait on hold for hours and hours and hours,” said Shedira Wilson, 35, of South Philly. “And when you do get somebody on the phone, they don’t give you any information.”
Enter Nigel Smith, a 24-year-old freelance computer coder. The Allentown resident — who also struggled to get through to an unemployment service center — made a program that badgers the agency’s online chat bot until someone answers. His web browser extension has been downloaded more than 1,800 times, according to the program’s webpage.
Smith said he was laid off from an IT job in March and couldn’t get in touch with an unemployment agent. He heard people spent hours trying to connect through the agency’s online chat feature. There was no way he would do that, Smith recalled.
“So I just made a program to do that for me,” said Smith, who started coding as a hobby in middle school but isn’t professionally trained. “It contacts them over and over again until they respond, automatically.”
Those who’ve used the software swear by it.
Cole Weiche said he called the state thousands of times over four months when he didn’t get unemployment benefits. The former cook from South Philly said he’d dial throughout the day, even while eating, all to no avail. One time he tried random extensions, starting at “1” and working his way up until he got to extension 43 and reached an official who said she couldn’t help. Weiche resorted to selling pasta on Instagram to help make ends meet.
Then in July, Weiche found a Reddit social media post with a link to download Smith’s software. Within 15 minutes of launching the program, Weiche said he was on the phone with an unemployment agent who fixed the issue with his claim. A few days later, he woke up with roughly $7,000 in the bank.
“I’m lucky I had savings and a job that paid me well prior to the pandemic,” said Weiche, 28. “But not everyone was lucky like me.”
Smith said his computer program saves workers time in a few ways. First, it repeatedly starts a new chat each time a user gets disconnected. Usually, workers have to go through the chore of manually entering contact information before each chat, but Smith’s program automatically inputs the info. By launching new chats rapid fire, the program gives workers more chances to reach an available agent, Smith said.
Smith’s program also talks to the agency’s virtual assistant, “PAULA.” The PAULA bot, launched in September, can answer common questions. But it won’t pass questions onto a human until numerous attempts to solve problems itself.
Smith said his computer script knows exactly what to say to convince PAULA to connect you to a human. “I just have it ask a pretty generic question, and then I tell the bot that I’m not satisfied with the response and I’d like to speak to an agent,” he said. “That just gets it to go through right away.”
State representatives declined to answer questions about Smith’s workaround.
Although Pennsylvania’s peak for weekly jobless claims came in March, the Department of Labor and Industry is still swamped. On top of the crush of claims caused by the coronavirus, the department is now dealing with a seasonal increase in calls, said Sarah DeSantis, a department spokesperson. The department answered 10,546 emails on Dec. 1 alone. The average email response time is 10 days, with the oldest unresolved email dated Nov. 9, DeSantis said.
As for the phones, hold times are about 40 minutes, said Susan Dickinson, the department’s director of unemployment compensation benefits policy. But that’s after callers get past the busy signal and into the queue, which is the hard part. The highest call volumes come Monday mornings, which tapers off in the afternoons and later in the week, she added. She encouraged workers to email UChelp@pa.gov to avoid spending time on hold.
The phone lines and live chats have capacity limits that are tied to staffing and system capabilities, DeSantis said. The state has the goal of handling 8,000 calls and 11,000 emails per day by the end of the year, Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak said during a news conference Monday. The department has nearly tripled its unemployment service staff since March, from 775 to 2,291 employees, and they’ve worked more than 434,000 overtime hours, DeSantis said.
The department has paid or denied 97% of the eligible claims it has received between March 15 and Oct. 24, DeSantis said. That leaves about 47,150 cases awaiting a resolution.
“We are continuing to make customer service improvements and will not be satisfied until every eligible Pennsylvanian receives the payments they are owed,” DeSantis said in a statement. “We apologize for any delays and inconveniences that have occurred due to lengthy wait times.”
Smith said his script should be unnecessary. He believes the state’s live chat should have a queue that tells users how many people are ahead in line, instead of a system that connects those lucky enough to log in at the right time. “They could have set this up properly,” Smith said. “The system is flawed.” DeSantis said the state did not create a long chat queue “to avoid leaving people waiting for hours when our staff may not be able to get to them.”
Of course, Smith’s computer program may give an unfair advantage to jobless workers who are more tech savvy and can afford personal computers. The program has been praised on Reddit, where users said it helped them speak to an agent in an hour or less after months of waiting for benefits.
One user — “PumpkinRollLady” — claimed to work for a Pennsylvania state legislator and knew 20 people who used the program successfully. PumpkinRollLady didn’t return a message seeking comment.
Still, not everyone who finally gets an answer gets good news. Krystal Foti, 40, of Florence Township, said she called the unemployment agency hundreds of times over 17 weeks — only to be denied benefits. She’s unsure whether to appeal her claim, noting that federal pandemic unemployment programs are set to expire Dec. 26. Then there’s the waiting.