Ineta Isaac lost her job last fall when she got sick with COVID-19 and couldn’t return to work. After exhausting her paid time off, Isaac said, she and her employer, a financial technology company, agreed to a “mutual separation” in November that was technically a layoff.
Six months later, Isaac, who onboarded clients for the company, is still waiting for Pennsylvania to decide whether she qualifies for unemployment benefits. She’s stayed afloat by depleting her savings, leaving some bills unpaid, and for one month, receiving rent help from a church. Although some businesses have recently said they can’t find workers at the wages they’re offering, Isaac says she is still looking for a job.
“I’ve been interviewing at great companies, but it’s so much competition, because there’s so many people in similar predicaments,” said Isaac, 29, of Mount Airy. “I don’t know how my next check is coming. I really have no idea.”
More than a year into the pandemic, thousands of Pennsylvania workers still wait weeks or even months in limbo to receive jobless benefits, or be denied. As of last week, there were roughly 289,000 unemployment claims that had not received payment, though the Department of Labor & Industry said that most of these claims are filed by fraudsters. Other claims are duplicates.
Now, advocates for unemployed workers are proposing a radical idea: Pay benefits to claimants after 21 days if the state can’t determine their eligibility by then. That would get money into the hands of workers living without income while the state figures out whether they qualify. The “Pay Benefits Now” proposal, however, risks sending money to people who aren’t eligible.
The idea, from the Philadelphia Unemployment Project advocacy group, has support from a Philadelphia state lawmaker and Community Legal Services (CLS), a nonprofit law firm that represents jobless workers. Proponents acknowledge that unqualified claimants could wrongly receive benefits. But they argue that the concern pales in comparison to the impact of people being unable to pay rent and buy necessities.
The Department of Labor & Industry “has no solution to the massive numbers without income,” said John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. “Obviously, in normal times, eligibility would be decided before benefits are paid, but these are not normal times.”
State Rep. Joseph Hohenstein, a Philadelphia Democrat whose district runs from Fishtown to Mayfair, supports the idea. “We do similar things with means-tested benefits, like providing emergency food stamps, because we recognize that we are talking about the necessities for life,” he said.
Sarah DeSantis, a department spokesperson, said paying benefits before establishing eligibility would be a “substantial compliance issue under federal law” and could lead to “significant overpayments,” compromising the program’s integrity. Under state law, the department would need to recoup overpayments by deducting those workers’ future benefit payments.
“Because of these legal requirements and others, such as the waiting week, unemployment benefits are not designed to assist individuals who require immediate financial assistance,” DeSantis said in a statement. “Other programs, such as SNAP benefits and rental assistance, may be a better fit for individuals who cannot wait for help.”
The number of claims awaiting determination, while in the hundreds of thousands, represents fewer than 5.4% of all claims received during the pandemic, DeSantis said.
The department is working on other initiatives meant to improve customer service. It plans to hire 500 people by June to answer phone calls for jobless workers, who can wait hours to get unemployment questions answered, if at all. About 230 of the new hires started Monday, though the customer service line was busy when this reporter dialed Tuesday.
The state is also planning a long-awaited upgrade of its unemployment computer system, transitioning from a 40-year-old system to modern software. The new system, set to be implemented in June, will look similar to user-friendly websites that most people use every day, according to the department. It is expected to enable faster communications and streamline the unemployment claim filing process.
But some worry that implementing the new system now could cause confusion and divert department staff from fixing other ongoing problems, such as the jobless workers still waiting for decisions about their unemployment claims. Community Legal Services has called for pushing the modernization to September, when unemployment could be at lower levels.
“When you have thousands of people who need something fixed, the idea that you divert yourself to something else for a month is not a happy development,” said Sharon Dietrich, a Community Legal Services attorney.
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.