HARRISBURG – Members of two Senate committees questioned members of the Wolf Administration today about the significant delays and numerous problems that have plagued the state’s Unemployment Compensation system during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Governor Wolf’s stay-at-home order has forced many employers to remain closed since March 19. The governor’s actions have pushed more than 1.8 million Pennsylvanians into the Unemployment Compensation system, leading to long delays, egregious mistakes and mass confusion for thousands of claimants.
“No one could have been prepared for the onslaught of claims that occurred, but now seven weeks from the start of the shutdown order, I know members of the Senate and citizens of the Commonwealth have many questions and frustrations about the administration of the unemployment compensation system,” said Senate Labor and Industry Committee Chair Senator Camera Bartolotta (R-46). “There are system limitations due to the age of the mainframe system, but some of the problems that exist could be improved through better communication and guidance to claimants.”
The hearing also explored problems with the state’s computer systems and applications that are responsible for processing claims and assisting claimants.
“Not only did people find themselves out of work because they were forced out of work, but to top it all off they saw delays in payment and significant communication glitches within the system,” said Senate Communications and Technology Committee Chair Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-28). “These are people’s livelihoods, and if we are going to tell them they cannot work, we need to be doing everything in our power to ensure that they can still receive the unemployment compensation that they so desperately need and deserve.”
Department of Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak testified that his department received nearly twice as many unemployment claims in the first seven weeks of the pandemic than in any other entire calendar year over the past two decades. A staffing compliment appropriate for the sustained period of low unemployment that preceded the COVID-19 pandemic also led to many of the problems experienced by claimants during the crisis.
“At the height of the Great Recession, we had nearly 1,500 UC Service Centers staff members on hand to respond to the crisis. Right before this pandemic, we had just 679 staff in the UC Service Centers,” Oleksiak said. “As of today, we have one UC staff person for about every 2,500 UC claims we’ve received since March 15.”
Oleksiak said that about 70 percent of claimants who have applied during the past seven weeks have received a payment. The department also brought back 70 recently retired staff, reassigned an additional 500 staff from other L&I agencies and plans to hire an additional 125 staff by the end of the month.
The committee also heard from several experts on Unemployment Compensation during the hearing. Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry Government Affairs Director Alex Halper detailed many of the concerns that have been expressed both by small business owners and employees.
“Recurring and often disheartening feedback from claimants involves exceedingly long delays, a challenging process rife with technological mishaps and, accordingly, many weeks with neither a paycheck nor unemployment benefit,” Halper said. “This situation is the result of a tragic confluence of circumstances, some of which are inevitable given the unprecedented health and economic situation while others stem from preexisting issues and deficiencies now being amplified.”
Halper also noted that the problems in the system were magnified by the fact that Governor Wolf’s business shutdown order went beyond federal guidance and shuttered more industries than other states.
Philadelphia Legal Assistance Supervising Attorney Julia Simon-Mishel discussed some of the problems that have affected her clients, including the slow roll-out of the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.
“Despite the Department’s laudable effort to quickly deploy its new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance system, the implementation has been near disastrous. The system was rolled out with little publicity, despite the incredible need of hundreds of thousands of workers across the state who had been left out of unemployment compensation coverage and were desperately waiting for the new program,” Simon-Mishel said. “Even several weeks after the PUA application went live, many thousands of people – your constituents and your neighbors – have no idea that there may be support for them. But those who did know about PUA and applied are not yet any better off than who have no idea.”
The committees also heard testimony from i2M President and CEO Chris Hackett, who recently resigned from the Workforce Development Board in response to comments by Governor Wolf that erroneously claimed that workers who refused to go back to their regular jobs could continue to collect Unemployment Compensation benefits. Wolf went on to say that employers should just pay employees more to lure them back to their jobs.
“If workers aren’t returning to manufacturing jobs and industries that affect the food supply, we only have to look at the empty supermarket shelves to know the unintended consequences of this kind of comment going uncorrected,” Hackett said. “This is clearly in conflict with the principles of free markets that our nation was founded on.”
The joint hearing today was part of a series of hearings held by Senate committees this week to explore different aspects of Governor Wolf’s response to the public health emergency. Full video and testimony from all of the hearings will be available online at https://www.pasenategop.com/committee-activity/.
CONTACT: Eric Kratz (717) 215-1259 (Senator Bartolotta)