When a hair stylist found out Pennsylvania had accidentally paid her thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits, she immediately sent the money back. The state decreased her weekly benefits anyway and a few months later, in November, stopped the payments altogether. Clover Hines still can’t get answers. “With this pandemic, man, nothing surprises me anymore,” said Hines, 39, of Overbrook.
A new mother waited six months to find out that the reason she had gotten only one unemployment check was that someone in Indiana had stolen her identity. When she submitted the documents to verify her identity, it took another week to get the money because the state sent it to the wrong debit card, an attorney helped her figure out. Before the money came through, Faith Palmer, a 19-year-old home health aide who’s been waiting to get called back to work, was worried: “The holidays is coming,” she said earlier this month. “I wanna go shopping for the baby.”
Desperate for answers about the four-month delay in his benefits, a Spanish interpreter drove all the way to Harrisburg from Philadelphia. There, a worker told him to fill out a “call back request form.” The interpreter only got a call after he reached out to a legal aid lawyer. “It’s a nightmare,” said 50-year-old Francisco Font, who moved to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico two years ago.
This is the maddening world of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), a federally funded program the state created in the spring to provide unemployment compensation to Pennsylvania workers who were out of a job but not eligible for traditional unemployment.
It’s hard to pinpoint the number of people whom the program served — the state has paid out nearly $6.8 billion in PUA benefits and received 2.2 million initial claims, but that number includes fraudulent claims and some from ineligible workers. Regardless, Philadelphia legal aid organizations and worker advocates say they’ve fielded nonstop calls from unemployed workers about PUA. The finer details of their situations vary, but their issue is the same: They can’t get their benefits, they’re running out of money, and they don’t know where to turn.
And the program is slated to end Dec. 26, unless the federal government extends it. The state says that would cut off benefits for 400,000 people. Gov. Tom Wolf has urged federal lawmakers to extend the program.
Ted Kelly, an organizer with the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, an advocacy group that organizes unemployed workers, said people who have called his organization for help are so crushed by financial and emotional despair that some have even said they are considering ending their lives.
Some have waited months without any explanation as to why their benefits were cut off — a violation of federal law, said Sharon Dietrich, litigation director for Community Legal Services.
Under the Social Security Act and constitutional due process, workers have the legal right to appeal if the state denies them benefits. But in these cases, the state isn’t denying them — yet, at least. It’s just taking a long time to review their cases.
The result, Kelly said, is that “they’ve been in limbo for months and months, and there’s no recourse.”
Dietrich, who said the overwhelming number of PUA problems has “completely hijacked what our practice is,” estimates that tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians had their benefits illegally frozen.
One reason benefits were frozen was because of suspected fraud. In October, more than 500,000 claimants were flagged for fraud and saw their benefits stopped. CLS believes low-income Philadelphians were hit particularly hard by this because the state’s system flagged claimants if they had the same address as another claimant, which is the case for anyone living with someone who was also applying for benefits or, say, living at a shelter.
To solve the fraud problem, the state brought in a contractor called ID.me to verify identities. It took more than two months for ID.me to send out messages to all the flagged claimants asking them to upload documents to verify their identity. As of early December, out of the more than 600,000 claimants asked to verify their identity, just 12% have done so.
The state believes the rest are “likely” fraudsters, said spokesperson Sarah DeSantis. CLS thinks otherwise, saying that thousands of people have likely missed or misunderstood the identity message — because they’re not digitally savvy or fluent in English, for example — or don’t have the documents they’re being asked for. Either way, Dietrich says the state’s response is troubling.
“I find it very problematic that the state is not making more efforts to make sure that everyone who is entitled to these benefits are getting them,” she wrote in an email.
The Department of Labor and Industry disputes that it illegally froze benefits without explanation, saying that if there was an issue with a worker’s claim, its staff would correct it within a week, or the department’s new system — implemented in October — would automatically release the worker’s benefits. The new system has resolved issues for 13,000 claimants, DeSantis said. All claimants who have issues also see “an issue code” on their dashboard that identifies the problem, she said.
Additionally, she said, the identity verification issue has been resolved with the implementation of ID.me.
“L&I’s goal is to get legitimate PUA claimants their payments as quickly as possible while also guarding against fraud,” DeSantis said. “We encourage any legitimate claimants who are experiencing issues to reach out to us at UCpua@pa.gov so we can identify and resolve their issues and get them the payments they are owed.”
But most who have had a PUA problem say they’ve learned that calling or e-mailing the state for answers is a hopeless cause. It’s why several Facebook groups have popped up as de facto community-led PUA customer service, where ordinary people try to help each other.
Donna Swangler, a mother of three in Bensalem who moderates a Pennsylvania PUA Facebook group with more than 19,000 members, says she fields messages “all day every day” about PUA, so much so that her husband wonders why she “wastes so much time doing this.”
But Swangler, 42, says it’s become something of a responsibility — “especially when the Department of Labor has given absolutely no guidance to anybody for PUA.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 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.