Between jammed phone lines, many are still fighting to get pandemic unemployment assistance

Boxes of food are distributed by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, at a drive thru distribution

Boxes of food are distributed by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, at a drive thru distribution near PPG Arena in downtown Pittsburgh, Friday, April 10, 2020. (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

Bastian Harris is one of many people in Pennsylvania who qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance – but they have struggled to get any money.

A self-employed editor in Cheswick, Allegheny County, Harris applied for the program several months ago after a major project was postponed due to COVID.

After initially being approved and receiving payments via paper checks in the mail, Harris then received a U.S. Bank ReliaCard, but was unable to access any funds on the debit card.

This left Harris increasingly desperate and stressed, not knowing when any money might come through.

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“It kind of kind of leaves me frozen, like, because I don’t want to ask to borrow funds from family, and I don’t want to not pay bills, but I know I have to choose and pick,” Harris said last week.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program – which is separate from the state’s usual unemployment system – has been plagued with problems, advocates say.

That’s due in part because the state had to build the new program in a matter of weeks; Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is for people who would not normally qualify for benefits under the state’s unemployment programs. It’s for workers who are self-employed, and so-called “gig” workers like Uber drivers.

Barney Oursler is the director of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee and has been helping laid-off workers since the days of the region’s mass steel layoffs in the 1980s.

“It’s been a major disaster,” he says of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

In addition to having to quickly set up a program to help hundreds of thousands of suddenly jobless people, Pennsylvania was one of many states hit by a ring of criminals using stolen identities to fraudulently get benefits.

While there is a need to combat large-scale fraud, that has placed the burden of proof on unemployed workers, according to advocates like Michele Evermore, a researcher with the National Employment Law Project.

“It’s like you’re guilty until you prove yourself innocent,” she said.

In June, the state Treasurer’s office announced it would only pay benefits via debit cards as an anti-fraud measure.

But it’s the card that has been problematic for Harris, who uses the they/them pronouns. Everywhere they turned was a dead end. Trying to get through to someone one the phone at Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor and Industry hasn’t worked. Calling ReliaCard didn’t help either.

After an internet search about the problem, Harris also tried uploading a selfie with a photo ID, after they read online this was what some people had been required to do, though Harris was never told by the state to do this.

Harris also tried to reach out to elected officials.

Oursler of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee says the system’s problems are being compounded by the fact that people like Harris can’t reach anyone at the state Department of Labor and Industry to straighten things out.

“It’s damn, damn near impossible to get through on the phone,” he said. “And again, if you email UC help at PA.gov, it’s going to tell you, that for sure, you’re not going to hear from them for two to four weeks, and that’s a very optimistic estimate from what I’m hearing and experiencing,” said Oursler.

These bureaucratic problems combined with anti-fraud measures have hurt jobless people who need money now, advocates say.

The state has also done a poor job of communicating with people like Harris who had problems with their claims, said Julia Simon-Mishel, an attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance specializing in unemployment issues.

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“These workers were just left in the dark, they weren’t provided with notice of what was happening, they weren’t provided with an opportunity to fix it, and now we’re looking months later at a situation where they have no income still,” she said.

State Senator Lindsey Williams, whose office is trying to assist Harris with their claim, said she and other elected officials have also been inundated with calls.

“It’s a huge problem,” Williams said.  She said her office is getting 150 to 175 calls per week on unemployment issues and estimates 75 to 80 percent their total calls are unemployment-related.

Pennsylvania’s Treasury is responsible for disbursing benefits once someone has been deemed eligible for unemployment compensation by the Department of Labor and Industry. The Pennsylvania Treasury “has taken extraordinary steps to meet the urgent needs of fellow Pennsylvanians who are out of work,” said a spokesperson.

Between January and the end of October, Treasury processed $30 billion in unemployment benefits as determined eligible by the Department of Labor and Industry, compared to a total of $1.4 billion in benefits during the same period in 2019, according to Ashley Matthews, a Treasury spokesperson.

“Aggressive” anti-fraud measures are in place, though only a small fraction of claims have been delayed for additional identity verification, she said.

Even a reporter’s efforts to get to the bottom of Harris’ case show how difficult it is to navigate the maze of government agencies and contractors involved.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor and Industry would answer questions about the anti-fraud measures it is taking using ID dot me, the third-party identity verification provider Harris located after their online sleuthing.

But the agency referred all questions about the debit cards to the state Treasury. The state Treasurer’s office said the issue should have been resolved by U.S. Bank.

After a reporter’s inquiry, U.S. Bank says it reached out to Harris directly, who, after weeks of trying was finally able to access their funds on Tuesday.

Advocates believe thousands of other Pennsylvanians are still struggling to get theirs.

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