Pennsylvania has demonstrated "continued failure" in paying first-time unemployment benefits in a timely fashion, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Further, the commonwealth has been "trending downward" in its efforts to get payments to state residents on time, the department added in a March 29 letter.
"Failure to issue benefits in a timely fashion contributes to the economic instability of customers," reads the letter, written by Lenita Jacobs-Simmons, regional administrator for the federal Employment and Training Administration. The letter is addressed to Julia Hearthway, secretary of Labor & Industry.
The letter was obtained by The Inquirer through the Freedom of Information Act.
Sara Goulet, a spokeswoman for Hearthway, wrote in an e-mail that "first payment timeliness is a top priority in our unemployment compensation division. We want to be sure that people who deserve benefits are receiving them and in a timely manner.
"Sometimes that takes longer than we like."
Goulet added that Labor & Industry recently issued a mandate "making first payment completion a top priority. . . . We are making progress and will continue to work with U.S. DOL on reaching realistic goals while best serving . . . clients"
Progress is apparently difficult. Federal regulations require that 87 percent of first unemployment compensation payments be made to people within eight to 14 days.
An Inquirer examination of DOL data shows that between March 2011 and March of this year, the department complied with those guidelines in just one month out of 24 - January 2012.
In fact, during the first quarter of 2013, the rate of making first payments within the required time fell - from a nearly compliant 86.4 percent in January to 69.4 percent in March. The March rate was the lowest recorded by the department since September 2010.
That drop is significant, said Community Legal Services attorney Sharon Dietrich, an unemployment expert. "When the state falls off its goals, people get really hurt," she said. "When the state doesn't pay benefits on time, people lose their houses."
Goulet wrote that the recession, though over, continues to have an effect.
"Backlogs from the Great Recession are still being handled," she wrote.
In addition, Goulet wrote that employers don't always submit paperwork on time. And, she added, federal funding cuts compel the department to "do more with less."
The department has said that increased call volume from people filing for first-time benefits has long hampered its workforce, which was diminished when call-center workers were fired last year.
Staff had to be diverted to call-answering duties, L&I indicated to the Department of Labor. That precluded staff from doing regular duties, which exacerbated L&I's lack of timeliness, L&I officials told federal officials.
But in the letter to L&I, Jacobs-Simmons said the phone issue doesn't address all of L&I's problems, especially since the volume of calls has dropped since the economy has begun improving.
"Larger call volumes has not been a continuous phenomenon," Jacobs-Simmons wrote, "and does not fully explain why the Commonwealth has failed to meet or achieve the agreed upon . . . targets."
The letter also criticizes the state for taking too long to investigate cases in which it wasn't clear whether a claimant qualified for benefits.
Pennsylvania demonstrated a "pretty low average" in settling such matters in a timely fashion, said George Wentworth, senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, who studied the letter. The project is a national nonprofit research and advocacy organization specializing in unemployment insurance.
Overall, Wentworth said, the letter "reflects that the federal regional office is becoming frustrated with Pennsylvania."
He added that the state continues to demonstrate "an inability to institute measures that would get unemployed workers their first payments promptly."
Goulet of L&I did not address Wentworth's criticisms.
As poorly as Pennsylvania has performed, it's hardly alone among states.
DOL records show that 19 other states have missed the federal guideline of making 87 percent of first payments of benefits within the last two years.
New Jersey, in fact, did even worse than Pennsylvania, never meeting the 87 percent mark in two years, DOL figures show.
A Dec. 21, 2012, letter to L&I from Jacobs-Simmons was more stringent in tone than the March one. In the first letter, Jacobs-Simmons said the commonwealth had underperformed so profoundly in the timely handling of unemployment insurance forms and other matters that the federal government might consider sanctions that would restrict budget money to L&I.
The second letter contained no such threat. And it referenced "some progress" in some areas other than timeliness of benefit payments.