Patrick Dillon had been checking Pennsylvania’s unemployment benefit website every day for weeks, wondering when the state would begin accepting applications from self-employed workers like him.
So he was pleasantly surprised when he checked just after midnight on Saturday morning, and saw that the application portal was open.
Dillon, who owns his own home remodeling business and lives in Fishtown, tried to quickly complete his applications. But the website had glitches and errors, he said, and what should have been a 15- or 20-minute process took nearly two hours.
“I’ve gone since the middle of March without a penny coming in,” said Dillon, who also supports his wife and their 1-year-old daughter with his income. “The way this process has gone so far, I don’t expect to see any money for quite a while.”
But just having an application submitted may make Dillon closer to receiving a check than thousands of other Pennsylvanians who are self-employed, gig workers, or independent contractors.
Pennsylvania launched its application portal Friday and announced it formally Saturday morning. By then, the website was plagued with glitches, delays, and reports of crashes.
“Due to the demand on a new system, we know that it will not be perfect and is slow at this time,” said Penny Ickes, a spokesperson for the state Department of Labor & Industry. “We expect tens of thousands of people to apply, so we are asking for patience.”
The new application portal opened as one in five Pennsylvania workers has already applied for unemployment compensation. The state received a total of more than 1.3 million new jobless claims in the four weeks ending April 11.
Now, as the state opens a new program to workers who have traditionally been ineligible for unemployment benefits, those unprecedented numbers could climb even higher.
The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, part of the $2.2 trillion federal coronavirus relief package passed last month, extends benefits to those workers and is administered at the state level.
Mary Gutridge and her husband, Charlie, spent nearly two hours Saturday navigating the state’s website, first unsuccessfully filing using the new portal, and later submitting a claim through existing unemployment forms.
The couple lost their major source of income when their home-inspection firm was deemed nonessential by Gov. Tom Wolf’s executive order.
As a business owner, Charlie Gutridge was unable to file for traditional unemployment benefits and had to wait for the new program to launch. Mary Gutridge, employed by her husband’s business, has applied for traditional unemployment but said she is still awaiting a PIN needed to access her benefits. They have dipped into savings, but said they worry that they don’t have enough to last another month.
“My frustration is that every day we hear, ‘We’re offering this,’ or ‘Here’s a new grant or new way to collect money while your business is closed,’ but we’re not seeing that,” Mary Gutridge said. “It just feels like promises aren’t being kept.”
Self-employed Pennsylvanians will be eligible for between $195 and $572 in weekly payments, as well as an automatic extra $600 per week made available through the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program. They must provide documentation on their inability to work, proof of employment or self-employment, and documents showing their income prior to the pandemic.
Ickes said Saturday that it will take between two and four weeks after a claim under the new program is submitted for payments to be issued, and noted that time frame is typical for unemployment compensation.
State Sen. Katie Muth, a Democrat who represents parts of Chester, Montgomery, and Berks Counties, said her office had been inundated with calls and emails from frustrated residents struggling to use the new website.
“All of our statewide online platforms need tremendous upgrades,” she said Saturday. “This is obviously something that hasn’t been put forth in budgets, which is disappointing, and this is a clear example of why maintaining websites should be so important.”
Muth said she and her staff have been forwarding reports of glitches with the system to Labor & Industry. Some local filers have been unable to complete the forms online, been told that the information they’ve entered is invalid, or have been directed to leave the website and file claims with the state elsewhere.
Dillon said the website was functioning very slowly when he checked it again Saturday morning, hours after submitting his application.
“Maybe just because I’m neurotic, I went to check to make sure my name was still in the portal and it’s almost impossible to get on at this point,” he said. “To go from screen to screen is quite a few minutes.”
Muth advised residents to be persistent and stay in contact with the state as departments work through a new system.
“We rolled it out knowing that every platform has upgrades waiting to be done, but the flip side is that if you waited and did all those trials, it would take longer,” she said. “People would be anxious either way, not knowing when help is going to come.”
Dillon said he also applied to federal relief programs for small businesses but has not heard back or received any aid. He said he expects the state process will also be slow and difficult.