Joshua B. Coffin was laid off from his job as a risk management consultant in March, one of more than 1.6 million Pennsylvanians to lose their jobs to the coronavirus pandemic. He filed for unemployment benefits on March 22, and dutifully posted regular status updates with the state: Yes, I’m still unemployed.
But no money landed in his bank account. Coffin, who lives in Center City, could get no answers from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. The phone lines were always busy. Emails went unanswered. The department’s web-chat portal was a dark hole.
An explanation finally arrived in his mailbox late last week, when he received a financial determination letter stating he was ineligible for benefits. The letter was dated April 2, and it was postmarked April 22.
Coffin says he wants to contest the decision, but the deadline for filing an appeal — April 17 — had expired before the letter even left the labor department’s mail room in Harrisburg.
“The system just seems to fundamentally be broken,” said Coffin, 41.
Coffin is among an increasingly frustrated legion of Pennsylvania workers who have been suddenly thrust into an Unemployment Compensation system that advocates say is not so much broken as overwhelmed by an unprecedented volume of claims that caught officials unprepared.
Nationwide, 3.8 million more Americans filed new unemployment applications last week, the U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday. That brings the total number of jobs lost to 30.3 million in six weeks as the world’s largest economy came crashing to a standstill from the pandemic response.
In Pennsylvania, more than 131,000 workers filed a claim in the week ending April 25 after losing their jobs or getting hours reduced, bringing the state’s total in six weeks to more than 1.6 million — or 24.7% of the workforce.
In New Jersey, the six-week total has climbed to 888,000, or 19.5% of the workforce. More than 71,000 New Jersey workers filed new claims for assistance last week, according to the federal data.
New applications nationwide have declined for five straight weeks since the end of March, but the numbers are unlike anything the nation’s unemployment insurance system has ever experienced.
The administrative costs of state unemployment offices are funded under a federal formula based upon last year’s volume of jobless claims, which were at a record low. Many states anticipated that unemployment claims would increase this year because economic indicators suggested an oncoming recession — but nothing like the pandemic-induced economic crash, said Michele Evermore, an unemployment insurance expert at the National Employment Law Project in Washington.
“States did start putting in place contingency plans: If unemployment goes up 10% we’ve got a plan for that,” said Evermore. “Nobody expected unemployment to go up a thousand percent.”
The Pennsylvania Office of Unemployment Compensation received about 40,000 unemployment claims in the three weeks before the coronavirus lock down. It experienced a 25-fold increase in the following three weeks, to about one million claims.
“We went from record low unemployment to numbers that we had never, ever seen before,” Jerry Oleksiak, the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, told reporters Monday.
‘Frustrated, feeling desperate’
The state has distributed $3.5 billion dollars in benefits since the avalanche of claims began in March, Oleksiak said, and most of that in the last two weeks. About $900 million of those benefits were payments authorized under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, which provides a supplemental $600-a-week benefit through the end of July.
But delays in payments and communications glitches have triggered an upsurge in complaints from exasperated workers, often expressed on the labor and industry department’s Facebook page. State officials say they are hearing the discontent, loud and clear.
“We know that there are people who are frustrated, feeling desperate,” said Oleksiak, a former Upper Merion special-education teacher and president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association. “We want to help them. We are doing all we can as quickly as we can.”
He said the department’s unemployment compensation unit has about 500 employees to respond to emails and calls, including many who were temporarily reassigned from other labor department offices. It has also brought back about 70 retirees familiar with the system. Most of the staff is working remotely from home.
“We’ve got over 500 staff from other agencies that we are training and getting ready to bring on to help with the emails and phone calls," Oleksiak said. "We’ve got 100 new hires that will be starting their training mid-May and we hope to have them working soon.”
The department has used the IBM Watson artificial intelligence system to respond to more than 95,000 calls, mostly routine questions.
Some applicants have practically given up hope on getting a response through the department’s normal channels, and are barraging elected officials for help. Some are even looking up names and emails of legislative staffers online, seeking a sign of life, anywhere.
“We can’t get any response to email or social media messaging,” said Beth Patterson, 29, who lives in Bellefonte, Centre County, with her husband, Kyle, 28. They moved to Pennsylvania from Virginia in August so that she could attend Penn State School of Law. Kyle Patterson lost his job in March as a restaurant manager.
“Phone lines and the website chat have completely crashed," she said. "The only people I know of who got through had to redial anywhere between 300 and 600 times in one day.”
The Pattersons have received two contradictory emails from state officials, one suggesting Kyle’s application was approved, and another indicating he was disqualified.
“But we don’t have any paperwork," said Beth Patterson. She said she and her husband have reached out to legislative offices and received sympathetic responses, but no action.
While the department has sagged under the huge volume incoming calls — it responded to more than 20,000 calls each of the last two weeks — it has also experienced a bottleneck of outgoing correspondence to claimants and employers.
Coffin and several others said their financial determination letters were stamped and postmarked several weeks after the letters were issued. The state appears to have put a priority on mailing out personal identification numbers to claimants, allowing them to access the online system. But other mail has suffered.
While many workers are receiving benefits without problems, those who are lost in a rabbit hole do not see the state making quick progress.
“You try to be a little patient, right?” said Delores Halstead, 54, a Philadelphia school bus driver who has previous experience with the state’s unemployment system because of the seasonal nature of her job.
Halstead filed for unemployment benefits in March after she was furloughed by her employer, Durham School Services. Her application appeared to be making headway, and then the state reported back that the claim was inactive since last July. She can’t figure out where her claim went off the rails. She is unable to file a new one, and she can’t get through to the department to resolve the problem.
“I’ve been reading the state’s website about the updates that they’re claiming have fixed some of the problems in the system,” she said. “But I don’t see it. I’m not getting anywhere.”
Modernizing the system
About 20% of claims — more than 300,000 applicants so far — were disqualified initially, Susan Dickinson, the director of the office of unemployment compensation benefits policy, told reporters Monday. Others are disqualified after additional review if the state determines they were self-employed, or their jobs were terminated for “willful misconduct” and they are ineligible for benefits.
Dickinson said there’s no backlog with financial determination letters going out. If claimants have not received the letters by now, she said, it likely means there’s a specific problem with their claim — their identity has not been verified or an address was not entered into the system correctly.
“It does take time for someone to get to that claim and make sure the identity is verified,” she said.
Another problem that has emerged is the aging mainframe computer system, which has been undergoing a multi-year modernization that is scheduled to be completed in October. The new system is more user-friendly, and will allow easier communication with claimants. But it’s unavailable now.
“We wish we had it before the pandemic started, but you know, timing is everything,” Dickinson said.
The current system is not designed to handle applicants with incomes greater than $100,000 a year. “I guess back in the late ’60s, no one imagined anyone’s salary would ever be that high,” said Dickinson. Those applicants are handled manually, slowing the response time.
The state also decided to quickly roll out a new system on April 18 to handle applications for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program approved by the federal government in March, which extends benefits for the first time to self-employed gig workers who are not covered by the conventional unemployment system.
But the system crashed under the onrush of initial applications, and the lack of communication about the new program has created confusion. The state has received 107,000 applications for PUA, but payments have not yet been issued.
“Any new system is going to have some rollout problem, right?” said Julia Simon-Mishel, the supervising attorney of the Unemployment Compensation Unit at Philadelphia Legal Assistance. “Rolling out a new program in the middle of a pandemic is almost certainly going to have some problems.”
One problem: Until the state makes a financial determination on how much a worker is entitled to receive, the new system is "automatically spitting out a weekly benefit rate of $195, which is the lowest benefit rate no matter what information people provided.” That causes some claimants entitled to larger checks to panic and take to the phones.
“People immediately fear that they did something wrong or it’s not going to work and they’re never going to receive this money,” Simon-Mishel said.