Over the last month, workers who have lost their jobs have had to deal with an overwhelmed and understaffed unemployment filing system.
The Keystone State has received more than 1.3 million unemployment claims since the coronavirus began wreaking havoc on the economy, according to the Department of Labor and Industry. Without much time to prepare for the historic spike in unemployment claims, local unemployment systems have found themselves understaffed and overwhelmed in applications.
To help answer the deluge of calls and emails, state officials announced on Monday they were bringing in more workers, some of whom were being called out of retirement.
Over the last month, unemployment applicants have had to deal with busy phone lines and dropped calls at state unemployment centers, making it difficult to get questions answered and to complete applications. State call centers have been getting anywhere between 10,000-15,000 phone calls each day, and applicants are also facing a long wait time to receive information like PIN numbers, which are required to file benefit claims, in the mail.
Compounding the frustrating wait time is a complicated filing system. “Even on a normal day [filing for unemployment] is very complicated to understand,” Susan Dickerson, who serves as the director of the Office of Unemployment Compensation Benefits Policy, told WJAC. “And now that we have all of these additional programs. People have so many questions and some are more complicated. It shows to us that a lot of people don’t understand the program to begin with.”
Department of Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak told Morning Call that 70 retired employees returned to work on April 13 to help with the work managing unemployment filings. He said that new and returning employees will go through training and then be tasked with answering questions over the phone and through email by the end of the week.
Workers at Pennsylvania’s unemployment system have been trying to help as many applicants as possible. They have enlisted help from staffers at other state agencies and even used an artificial intelligence software created by IBM to handle frequently asked questions.
The additional help at unemployment offices is expected to help address some of the case backlog. Applicants who had been waiting on their PIN numbers to come in the mail will be able to file retroactively for any benefits they may have missed.
“It’s an old system,” Oleksiak said of the state’s unemployment processes. “We are keeping it going through sheer willpower sometimes.”
Pennsylvania has also begun implementing new federal unemployment benefits provided through the CARES Act on top of the state’s regular unemployment benefits.. The coronavirus relief package passed by Congress will temporarily provide an additional $600 per week and expand unemployment benefits to workers who are self-employed, independent contractors and those who work in the gig economy. The expansion of benefits will last for an additional 13 weeks, and began April 4.
The state’s efforts to increase access to unemployment offices and work through the incredible number of cases comes on the heels of an announcement on Monday that Pennsylvania and neighboring states will be working together to come up with plans to reopen their economies in the coming months.
“This is about restoring our economy, but it’s also about restoring the sense of hope this pandemic has taken away from us,” Gov. Wolf said on Twitter. “By working together, we can all be stronger. And by starting now to develop this plan, we can reopen as soon and as safely as possible.”
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