Lawmakers voice concern over unemployment compensation claims backlog

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    On Friday, as Pennsylvania’s March 2020 6 percent unemployment rate was announced, state Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Luzerne, said he was fielding phone calls from constituents angry and frustrated at the backlogs of the state’s unemployment compensation system. 

    Constituent complaints, Mullery said in a statement, are why he wrote to House Labor and Industry Committee Chairman Jim Cox, R-Berks, asking for a virtual hearing with state Labor and Industry Secretary Gerard Oleksiak. 

    “The people of Pennsylvania deserve answers about his department’s failures relative to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mullery said in a statement Friday. Specifically, we request answers and information related to the department’s actions, or rather inaction, following the spike in unemployment claims and its failure to develop a timely system for application and disbursement of pandemic unemployment assistance benefits.”

    In his letter to Cox, Mullery said he has “lost count of the number of constituents who have sought assistance with my office about their failure to L&I staff, obtain necessary PIN information, file claims, etc.” 

    Mullery also wrote to Cox that he “feared, without further action, by our committee, these delays and inaction will continue.”

    In mid-March, following Gov. Tom Wolf’s order to keep non-essential personnel at home to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry cut its staff to essential personnel only – half their usual complement. 

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    Since then, the department has urged affected Pennsylvanians to apply for benefits online as the unofficial tally of claims totals nearly 1.5 million. 

     During an online news conference Monday, Oleksiak told journalists that the department has “been in regular conversation with legislative leaders” and the Labor and Industry committees in both chambers.  

    ‘We are experiencing some delays,” Oleksiak said. “We are working through those.”

    Oleksiak said most of the delays in processing unemployment claims have been due to volume. However, Oleksiak did not lay out details for how the department will address those delays in the call. 

    “I can assure that we are doing everything we can,”Oleksiak said. “We want to do the right thing for our citizens.”

    Cassie Miller
    A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry. Miller has an extensive background in magazine writing, editing and design. She is a graduate of Penn State University where she served as the campus newspaper’s photo editor. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in professional journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to her role at the Capital-Star, Miller enjoys working on her independent zines, Dead Air and Infrared.