Unemployed Pennsylvanians demand benefits amid growing backlog of claims

People, some holding signs, participate in a protest demanding Pa. pay out their unemployment benefits

Two dozen people in Philadelphia called on the state to process their unemployment applications during a protest on May 6, 2021. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Protesters, including a number of Democratic state lawmakers, called on Gov. Tom Wolf Thursday to pay unemployment benefits to hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians who have been left without support for months as their claims languish in a growing backlog.

The protests — in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — came a day after other advocates called on the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry to postpone its upcoming plans to modernize the computer system that handles unemployment claims until later in the year, when fewer people are collecting unemployment, for a smoother transition.

Sara Covington, one of more than two-dozen people who demonstrated outside Wolf’s Philadelphia office, lost her job as a health aid in September. While many of her former co-workers have been approved and received checks, she said she is still waiting for the state to determine her eligibility. Meanwhile, she’s been relying on the kindness of friends and strangers to pay her rent and basic needs like food — and now she needs to pay them back.

Covington, an organizer with the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, described a frustrating process where it’s hard to get a human being to answer her questions.

“It’s always a busy line. Busy Signal, busy signal,” she said. “And if by chance you do get a ring, they pick up, they hang right up.”

Sara Covington says she's been out of work since September and needs the state to process her unemployment application
Sara Covington says she’s been out of work since September and needs the state to process her unemployment application. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Michael Walker, of Philadelphia, lost his restaurant job in November and said he also hasn’t been able to connect with someone at the state Department of Labor and Industry by phone.

“I feel like I’ve been very traumatized by the system because all the time that I had, I still had my bills because they come every 28 days,” he said.

Michael Walker says he can't even get his unemployment application started because he's having trouble with his pin. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)
Michael Walker says he can’t even get his unemployment application started because he’s having trouble with his pin. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

“We have paid into the system. We are not asking for something that doesn’t belong to us. We have given into the system. We have worked all our lives for these benefits,” said Rev. Cornell Brunson, speaking to the crowd in Pittsburgh about his struggle to collect benefits.

Several state lawmakers placed the blame for system underfunding on Republican legislators, though several also called on Wolf, a Democrat, to make sure people get paid.

“I am here to ask the governor to help us to free up this money, to get people the money that they deserve and to do it now,” said state Rep. Emily Kinkead.

A new computer system for unemployment is set to launch on June 8, after more than a decade of delays. The current system will start to shut down to claimants on May 30 as part of a “blackout” period during the transition between two systems.

But there’s no need to switch to the new system now, said Sharon Dietrich, litigation director for Philadelphia-based Community Legal Services. On Wednesday, Dietrich urged the state’s Benefit Modernization Advisory Committee to hold off on the changeover until September.

“While many of the changes will be positive, rushing implementation of this system now makes no sense, especially when there is no deadline by which it needs to be done,” Dietrich wrote in a letter to the committee. She argued the agency should postpone implementation of the new system until at least September, when unemployment will hopefully be much lower.

The state’s unemployment rate is still high at 7.3%, and more than one million Pennsylvanians are receiving unemployment benefits, she said.

“If even 10% of recipients cannot obtain or locate passwords or manage the new software without help (a very conservative estimate), the strain on an already overtaxed system will be immense,” Dietrich said in a letter.

“The more people on the system at the time this goes live, the more hardship,” she told the committee on Wednesday.

Among other reasons to put off such a big change: The “blackout period” while the systems are transitioning that will halt all activity for claimants will divert the state from fixing other problems in the existing Unemployment Compensation and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance systems, as well as the lack of community education on the new system, she said.

The department said the change will represent a major upgrade and faster claims processing.

“The outdated mainframe used to process Unemployment Compensation claims is difficult for claimants to use and is slow for our staff,” said Sarah DeSantis, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Industry. “The new unemployment compensation system will simplify filing for everyone – that means less confusion and less frustration. Claimants will have a better understanding of the status of their claim, better access to staff members through the messaging center, and a better overall experience. And, most importantly, the system will be faster and easier to use for our staff, which means claims will be processed more quickly.”

She also said the agency already delayed a previously planned implementation last October.

Waiting again until this fall means the agency “risk[s] needing to change or extend federal programs on the antiquated system.”

Thursday’s protest was not the first time demonstrators have shown up outside Gov. Wolf’s regional offices to demand the state fix the problems with its overburdened unemployment system. Previous demonstrations have demanded the Department of Labor and Industry hire more staff to answer the phones, which is still a problem more than a year into the pandemic, and that the department pay the backlog of claimants still awaiting a determination.

The agency disputed that all 289,000 claims in the backlog are legitimate, and said it believes some of them are fraudulent.

The department also announced on Thursday that additional customer service staff will start working on Monday.

WHYY’s Laura Benshoff contributed to this report.

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