Shara Molt was furloughed more than two months ago and still hasn’t received an unemployment check. But the bills keep coming.
Molt’s relatives have helped her pay car payments, health-care bills, and groceries for her family of four. All the while, the Dresher resident said she struggles to get through to Pennsylvania’s unemployment office to ask about the benefits claim she filed in May. The phone lines are busy and the wait time for an emailed response is too long, she said. When she did get ahold of someone, she was told she’d get an explanation in a mailed letter.
“It’s frightening. It leaves you feeling extremely insecure and exposed,” said Molt, a 42-year-old meetings and events planner. “And it’s hard to believe that the government allows somebody to go so long without help or a way to get in touch with somebody.”
Molt is among 90,000 workers in Pennsylvania who filed for benefits between March 15 and June 20 and still haven’t gotten paid — or even denied. Complaints about the stubborn backlog, which amounts to 8% percent of claims filed during that period, prompted a Philadelphia congressman to suggest this month that the state call in the National Guard to help process claims.
As thousands of jobless Pennsylvanians anxiously waited for help, 1.4 million more Americans filed new claims for unemployment assistance last week, including 37,238 in Pennsylvania and 25,606 in New Jersey, the federal government reported Thursday. The 1.4 million new claims are 109,000 more than the week before, marking the first time new claims increased since steadily declining from a peak of 6.9 million in late March. Sarah House, a senior economist at Wells Fargo, called the uptick in new claims “one of the clearest signs yet that the U.S. recovery is stalling.”
Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry officials said the delayed claims under review are often more complicated and could be held up for various reasons, from application errors to the need for more information from employers. The department has doubled its staff to handle the crush of claims caused by coronavirus business closures. Employees have worked more than 203,000 overtime hours and answered hundreds of thousands of emails, phone calls, and online messages, spokesperson Jahmai Sharp said.
“We understand the frustration of the 8% of claimants that are under review by our UC [Unemployment Compensation] staff,” she wrote in an email.
But those still waiting for answers say they are stretching their dollars and depleting their savings. The backlog of claims, while shrinking, has gotten the attention of U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), who asked Gov. Tom Wolf in a letter this month to call in the National Guard to help.
“It has been very poor execution on ensuring that people get their rightfully due unemployment. And I’ve been very disappointed,” Evans said Monday.
Evans, who said his Washington office has received six to 12 calls and emails a day about unemployment issues, suggested that the state should hire high school and college students as temporary workers and allow legislators to check on constituents’ application statuses. As for bringing in the National Guard, he noted in his July 2 letter that Oregon and Washington state had done that to help process claims.
Pennsylvania Labor & Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak said Monday that the state seriously considered Evans’ idea but decided it wasn’t viable, primarily because the unemployment office has already doubled its staff from 775 to 1,594.
“And there’s a lot of training and support that they need right now,” he added. “We would not be able to provide the appropriate level of support to any Guard that would come in. The National Guard is an outstanding organization that does a lot of wonderful things, but they would still need the same training as anyone else would related to the unemployment compensation system.”
Pennsylvania is hardly alone in facing a big claims backlog after state governments shut down businesses to slow the spread of the virus. California reportedly had a backlog of nearly two million claims over the first three months of business shutdowns. Wisconsin was 140,000 claims behind as of last week.
New Jersey’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development did not provide backlog figures, but said it has paid 96% of its 1.2 million eligible applicants. That leaves about 48,000 who are still waiting, but spokesperson Angela Delli-Santi said that includes people who were deemed ineligible or have appealed a determination.
In addition to the unprecedented level of claims, payments are delayed because unemployment offices use antiquated systems and because they need to carefully review claims to combat potential fraud, said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the New York-based think tank Century Foundation, who has studied unemployment benefits for 20 years.
“The fraud issue has been a bigger issue,” Stettner said, noting the federal government made unemployment benefits more lucrative during the pandemic. “Things that could have been done by hand or adjudicated in a timely fashion, they’re struggling to do it because they’re getting such extreme volume.”
Companies continue to lay off workers at high levels, as new unemployment claims have exceeded one million for 18 weeks. There were 16.2 million Americans receiving unemployment benefits as of July 11, down 1.1 million from the week before, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
In Pennsylvania, some claims under review date to March and April, and state unemployment service centers are reaching out to those people to resolve them, said Susan Dickinson, the department’s director of unemployment compensation benefits policy. One claim took 11 weeks to resolve as the state figured out whether a person’s job separation qualified for benefits, she said Monday. Under normal circumstances eight weeks is typically the maximum amount of time it takes to process a claim, she said.
The state offers online resources to help people through what can be a complex process.
After being laid off at an Old City restaurant, Ryan Nagle said he filed a claim in March and got his first unemployment check in June. In the weeks in between, he dialed the state unemployment office with two phones all day, every day, until he reached someone who fixed the problem with his claim. But he drained his savings while he waited for the checks to hit his bank account.
“I was basically just keeping my checking account from over-drafting at that point,” said Nagle, 38, of Fishtown. “We’re good now, but we’re talking to a financial planner. So, hopefully, we’re better prepared in case anything like this happens again.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.