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Busy signals, long waits might be back for Pennsylvania's jobless

People who advocate for the unemployed are worried that the bad old days of 2012's unemployment benefit gridlock will return next year, absent new funding.

How bad was it?

In August 2012, when Pennsylvania shuttered the Philadelphia Unemployment Compensation Service Center and fired the 90 employees who answered phones and processed benefit claims, the workers' union negotiated a key severance provision: that those who were laid off be allowed to file their claims before they left their office in Northeast Philadelphia.

Why? Because "we knew they'd never get through" on the phone to file their unemployment claims, the president of the union said at the time.

In the aftermath of the recession, the jobless were dialing and redialing in a vain effort to get past busy signals. Anyone lucky enough to get through to the unemployment centers could count on hours on hold.  Those who managed to file their benefits faced delays in actually getting the money.

Through payroll payment, employers and employees fund the cost of unemployment benefits and administration. During the recession, the federal government funneled extra money into the states to cover added costs, but as unemployment declined, federal funding diminished. The state also passed a bill adding additional funding to improve the unemployment system, including software, but that extra funding comes to an end this year.

Should the Senate not act Wednesday, the last day the Senate is scheduled to be in Harrisburg this year, some of the state's remaining eight unemployment claims centers would have to be closed and benefit counselors laid off, Kevin Cicak, deputy secretary for unemployment compensation programs, told legislators in September. The House did pass the measure; now it is waiting for Senate action.

"I'm trying not to panic people," said Tom Herman, president of SEIU Local 668, which represents many state employees, including those in the unemployment system. "But we are alarmed."

Also alarmed are the advocates for the unemployed.

"We are also worried they might step backward," said Julia Simon-Mishel, a staff attorney with Philadelphia Legal Assistance, who counsels many unemployed people.

"We had this terrible problem where people would spend two or three weeks waiting for their benefits," said John Dodds, who leads the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, an advocacy group for the unemployed. "These people were already at half their income and it was total frustration. You don't know where your money is."

The funding situation comes at a time of rising unemployment. In September, the national unemployment rate was 5.0 percent. In Pennsylvania, it was 5.7 percent, up from 4.6 percent in January, although that was down from 8.7 percent in 2010, when unemployment was at its worst in the state.

Even as the number of jobless people is rising, more people will also soon become eligible for unemployment benefits.

During the recession, state lawmakers tightened eligibility, but earlier this year, they loosened the rules to allow more seasonal workers, especially construction and low-wage workers, to qualify for benefits, starting in January. The state estimates that 45,000 to 50,000 more people will be allowed to apply for benefits.

"And we're the ones that will be taking those calls," SEIU's Herman said.

It was unknown as of Monday evening whether the Senate would vote on any measures in Harrisburg on Wednesday. Typically, legislators don't vote on bills during the period between the election and the start of a legislative session. Government critics had, in the past, chastised legislators for voting in that period, saying they might be tempted to vote on unpopular bills once they no longer faced the immediate risk of gaining or losing their seats.

The last recession overwhelmed the unemployment system in Pennsylvania. In 2012, average wait times on hold topped an hour, said Sara Goulet, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.  Last week, the average wait time was just under 10 minutes, she said. In 2012, first payments arrived on time 81 percent to 83 percent of the time, she said. Now, first payments come on time 91 percent of the time.

The improved efficiency - the result of a combination of improved systems and declining claims - has led to reduced staffing in the unemployment benefit system. Staffing declined from from 2,003 in 2011 to 1,247 in September, mostly through retirement and attrition, Goulet said.