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Laid off workers battle outages, jammed phone lines as Pa. unemployment system buckles from coronavirus surge

Some of the dysfunction stems from a 2016 political spat that led to major layoffs in the division that handles unemployment claims, and staffing levels have never fully recovered.

More than 830,000 Pennsylvanians have abruptly found themselves without a job or income following the statewide shutdown of schools and all but “life-sustaining” businesses — decisions intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
More than 830,000 Pennsylvanians have abruptly found themselves without a job or income following the statewide shutdown of schools and all but “life-sustaining” businesses — decisions intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

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HARRISBURG — Each day last week, Shawn McCreary settled into a new and strange routine.

Instead of going to his job in Mechanicsburg as a substitute special education teacher, McCreary picked up the phone and began calling the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry’s unemployment compensation hotline, hoping to reach anyone who could help him.

His rent would be due on the first of April, and there was less than $200 in his bank account.

On Thursday, he called 143 times before the line connected, only to wait on hold for nearly three hours. Then the call dropped. The offices appeared to have closed for the day.

McCreary is one of more than 830,000 Pennsylvanians who in the last two weeks have abruptly found themselves without a job or income following the statewide shutdown of schools and all but “life-sustaining” businesses — decisions intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

As of Friday, the number of new unemployment claims filed since the shutdown surpassed the total for all of 2019. That’s placed an unprecedented burden on an already understaffed unemployment compensation system, which was ill-prepared to handle the surge.

On Monday, officials said parts of the system were malfunctioning, an issue that appeared to linger into the afternoon.

The Department of Labor and Industry said it employs 183 claims examiners and 109 intake interviewers within its larger unemployment compensation division. That’s roughly 220 positions fewer than the same time in 2016, according to an assessment of salary data, the year a blowup between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the GOP-led Senate gutted operations.

That year, a special state fund established to help bring the department into compliance with federal standards was set to expire. Just days before Christmas, Republicans declined to vote on a bill with $57.5 million in what the Wolf administration said was needed funding.

The special fund was established in 2013 after federal officials accused Pennsylvania of failing to appropriately pay out unemployment benefit claims within an acceptable time frame. Advocates recall call center lines clogged for hours, with applicants left with no other recourse but to go to physical offices.

Without a vote on the bill, the department eliminated more than 500 positions and closed three service centers.

In the months that followed, 312,000 residents who tried to contact the unemployment compensation call centers got a busy signal more than 99% of the time, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale found in April 2017. In an audit, he found the department had failed to properly account for its funding over several years.

While some funding and staff have been restored, only one service center reopened, and the department remains well below past staffing levels.

Steve Catanese, president of SEIU Local 668, a social services union that represents many of the state’s labor and industry employees, said the system has never recovered from 2016.

Even if the department had “five times the staff,” Catanese said, he still believes it “would be overburdened.”

The Department of Labor and Industry said Sunday it intends to add 100 new staffers and will continue to expand as needed.

“Literally overnight, we jumped to our highest-ever number of claims for unemployment benefits,” Penny Ickes, a spokesperson for the agency, said in an email. “We are increasing our operations as quickly as possible while balancing the important work of helping Pennsylvanians apply for unemployment benefits.”

Ickes encouraged people to file claims online rather than calling, acknowledging there are longer than normal wait times. Jerry Oleksiak, secretary of the Department of Labor and Industry, told reporters Monday he could not say how many more staff would be needed.

“That is a very difficult question to answer,” he said, declining to provide an exact number, adding, “We are looking at all we can to respond to the situation we are in.

“We want to provide people with answers, we want to provide them with the unemployment they are entitled to, and we are doing all we can as fast as we can to get there,” Oleksiak said.

The department would not say how many of the 830,000 claims had been approved or denied, or are still pending review. Ickes said there have been no delayed or missed benefits payments or major system outages as a result of soaring claims. She said it can take two to four weeks for someone to receive a payment.

Unemployed workers, however, described frustration and panic last week as they struggled to file claims, and online, email, and telephone services did not provide help.

Spotlight PA reviewed screenshots of workers’ call logs and other images that showed long wait times and online portal issues. An automated email from the unemployment compensation help desk, for example, said to expect up to a week for a response.

Scheduled direct deposits were delayed, leaving some with missed rent, utility, and phone bill payments, some out-of-work Pennsylvanians said. Some described repeatedly getting kicked out of the online portal and live chat when they tried to log in. Others filed claims online, only to be told the system had no record of the application or of the Social Security number needed to log in.

McCreary filed for unemployment March 13, and more than two weeks later, on Saturday, was told over the phone his claim would be approved.

“This entire week has been an anxiety attack every day,” McCreary, 35, said. “Before you make a call to close the businesses of the entire state, I would hope somebody would have said, ‘Do we have a plan in place for the support structure to handle this influx?’ Somebody should have anticipated this.”

Anthony Jackson was laid off from his job in Montgomery County in February, before the influx of coronavirus-related claims. When the date for his scheduled payment in March came and went without unemployment benefits arriving in his bank account, Jackson tried to get in touch with the Department of Labor and Industry.

“You can’t get into the [unemployment compensation] chat, you can’t get through to anyone on the phone,” said Jackson, who called 40 times in one day without getting an answer. “You are unable to get into the system at all to get any additional information.”

Jackson said he relies on the roughly $460 weekly check to pay for groceries, rent, and his phone bill. Instead, he said, “because the payment wasn’t made, I have a couple bounced check fees, and I don’t have any financial [support] at all.”

The $2 trillion federal stimulus package signed by President Donald Trump last week will provide some relief to unemployed workers, extending the maximum time they can collect benefits from 26 to 39 weeks and providing $600 in addition to the standard payment.

The package also will prevent landlords from evicting tenants for late rent payments, but it does not forgive delinquent utility bills or prevent internet providers from terminating service.

State officials do not yet know how these benefits will be distributed or when unemployed workers will see the additional help.

“It is a chaotic situation because of the massive number of layoffs,” said John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. “But it was also like that even before the layoffs.”

Dodds said the state’s unemployment system was already difficult to use and made it hard for people with questions or problems to get help. This is especially problematic now, he said, for workers who don’t have internet access and need to use the phone to apply for benefits.

“I would be a lot more sympathetic if I didn’t know this was the situation before the coronavirus,” Dodds said. “It is really not acceptable to have a state agency that people depend on for their livelihoods and they can’t be reached when there is a problem.”

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