Unemployment phone staff cut in half amid COVID-19 crunch

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    As Pennsylvania processes tens of thousands of new applications for unemployment compensation, it will do so short-staffed, according to a top state Department of Labor and Industry official.

    The revelation came during a Thursday press call from the department, which manages pay for those out of work. Normally, between 90 to 130 state employees answer phone calls, Deputy Secretary for Unemployment Compensation Bill Trusky said. 

    But because Gov. Tom Wolf mandated that nonessential employees work from home to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the the number answering phones has been cut in half, Trusky said. The employees at work are either laboring remotely and in state offices.

    “Working with a skeleton staff taking into consideration the safety of our employees,” Trusky said.

    Trusky added that the department hoped that by improving its IT capacity, it could return to, and then add, capacity by hiring new employees or bringing back recent retirees to process claims. They hoped to have the updates done by Monday.

    In the meantime, the department said that applicants should instead use its online application. When such an application is “clean,” 80 percent go through without any employee review and pay out, said Susan Dickinson, director of the agency’s Office of Unemployment Compensation Benefits Policy.

    Emails on compensation claims are turned around within 48 hours, she added.

    Thousands of food service employees out of jobs as Pa. unemployment claims spike

    As of March 7, almost 137,000 were claiming unemployment insurance according to federal data. According to the Associated Press, 50,000 people alone applied for state unemployment benefits on Monday.

    Both workers and employers contribute to the state’s unemployment system, which then pays out benefits for up to 28 weeks, or roughly six-and-a-half months. 

    If an employee has been laid off or quits, they may then qualify for bi-weekly payments of between $68 to $561. The exact payment depends on how much money the worker made over the course of the last year. 

    Applicants receive their first check after two weeks out of work. The department also recently waived a requirement that applicants search for work, and is paying workers for their first week unemployed. Previously, there was a one week “waiting period” when workers were not paid.

    In an advisory Monday, the state Department of Labor and Industry said that workers who’ve lost hours or their entire job because of closings due to the coronavirus, as well as workers who are self-quarantining could qualify for unemployment benefits.