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.”

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.

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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.

Published 
July 23, 2020