Some of the most gut-wrenching conversations I’ve had with constituents have come over the past two months or so. They all carried a common theme: Unemployment benefits…or more like the lack thereof.
I’ve heard from single parents who ran out of money to feed their children, and I’ve heard from white-collar workers who have depleted their savings. Each person said they had applied for unemployment compensation just after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered nearly every business in the Commonwealth to close. This was the first time many had ever applied for unemployment assistance. Several said they hadn’t heard a peep from the Department of Labor and Industry. Others received notice that their benefits were approved, but no money appeared in their bank account or on their benefit card. Each person was scared because they didn’t know how they were going to get by without any money coming in. Calls to the department were met with busy signals or in some instances when they were able to get through, the calls would suddenly drop. Emails went unanswered for weeks. Contact was nil. The system meant to assist them instead failed them.
In fact, some people have returned to work and are only now receiving a response from the Department of Labor and Industry. For those people, it took about two months to get a reply. For others, they are still waiting to hear from the department about their claims. Our office has been able to assist many of these constituents, but for some, we are still awaiting a response.
Well over 2.1 million Pennsylvanians, which accounts for about one-third of the state’s entire workforce, filed for unemployment benefits since the shutdown began. That includes traditional workers and the self-employed, independent contractors and gig workers. The 2.1 million claims put an enormous strain on a system not meant to handle so many people left jobless all at once.
The House Labor and Industry Committee recently held an investigative hearing to seek answers to why so many people have waited so long to receive even a dime in benefits. Mainly, we want to learn what went so wrong so that it doesn’t happen again should we ever find ourselves in a similar situation.
Naturally, when so many people filed for benefits all at once, the system was overwhelmed and couldn’t keep up. The governor’s order to close certain businesses far exceeded all other states. For example, while nearly every other state allowed for construction to continue, Wolf closed this sector, putting a further strain on the system.
One of the issues we heard during the hearing was that the department had to provide its own employees the needed tools, mainly laptops, to work from home during the mass shutdown. Wolf’s closure order was abrupt. I believe the administration should have been more prepared for the fallout of the governor’s order.
The department should have been made aware of the forthcoming closures and business sectors impacted so that it could have been better prepared to serve the millions of Pennsylvanians who would turn to the department for help. Like so many state employees, the workers on the frontline at the department are doing a tremendous job given the situation. They need the tools and the knowledge of what’s to come so that they can better serve the people of Pennsylvania who need assistance.
Another issue that compounded these problems is that unemployment compensation claims are processed using a 40-year-old computer system. Mind you, this is the same system that was slated to be replaced more than 10 years ago. The process of replacing the system has been met with numerous setbacks, costing taxpayers more than $350 million. The latest vendor to take on updating the system was to have the new system up and running last April.
During the hearing, department officials said the new system would have alleviated some of the unprocessed claims. The new system is to be up and running in October, 13 years too late and hundreds of thousands frustrated and penniless Pennsylvanians later.
The cost of this error is extremely high for so many Pennsylvanians. We owe it to them to get the needed answers. We will continue to press the department and the administration for information. More importantly, we will continue to fight for the jobless Pennsylvanians who have not received assistance.
Representative Kate A. Klunk
169th Legislative District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Greg Gross
RepKlunk.com / Facebook.com/RepKlunk