By Barney Oursler and John Dodds
Every day we get dozens of calls from desperate unemployed workers asking for help receiving the financial support they’re entitled to. Many have been waiting months for a decision about their eligibility for unemployment benefits.
But Pennsylvanians can’t afford to keep waiting.
Unemployment benefits are not a gift. In Pennsylvania, workers are taxed and regularly pay into the state’s Unemployment Insurance program. The program was designed to give prompt, if only partial, payment to workers until they can secure new employment. People shouldn’t feel as if they have to beg for the support that they’re not only entitled to, but that they’ve paid for.
The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry runs the unemployment system, and has testified to the state legislature that 289,000 unemployed people are waiting for decisions about their eligibility for unemployment benefits.
And that number has consistently worsened throughout the pandemic. The backlog has increased by nearly 50% just since January 2021.
In addition to the nearly 289,000 waiting for an eligibility determination, tens of thousands of claimants have had payments inexplicably stopped, and are unable to get an answer from the state about if or when their payments will resume.
To make matters worse, the state is in the midst of making a drastic overhaul (called Benefits Modernization) of the software that manages unemployment claims. This is an incredibly risky plan in the midst of an already overwhelmed system.
We fear that it could make the current problem even worse. As acting state Labor & Industry Secretary Jennifer Berrier testified at an April 14 hearing of the House Labor and Industry Committee, “As with any project of this magnitude, we anticipate that there will be some hiccups early on.”
“Hiccups” in a system currently serving over 1 million Pennsylvanians could mean hundreds of thousands more people are left waiting without income. The state must first deal with the 289,000 already waiting.
The Social Security Act of 1935 requires that states pay unemployment benefits “when due.” Under federal guidance, the majority of eligibility determinations should be made within 21 days – a far departure from the six months some families have gone without a paycheck.
That’s why Gov. Tom Wolf should order the Department of Labor and Industry to pay benefits now to all those who have been waiting 21 days or longer.
The state is required to determine eligibility for unemployment claims, as they should. But the state cannot hide behind its obligation to issue determinations while ignoring its obligation to pay benefits when people need them. The mass unemployment caused by the pandemic has prompted other states to make similar moves.
Anyone who wrongly receives payment will be assessed an overpayment.But those who are entitled to benefits will not starve and lose their homes in the meantime.
While her own department’s data show that the number of Pennsylvanians awaiting a determination is growing week by week, Berrier is publicly focusing on misleading and incomplete numbers for regular UC claimants and irresponsibly dismissing most Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claimants as frauds.
These Pennsylvanians should not be written off just to allow the state to present a more attractive picture of a dysfunctional system.
So the question remains, how much longer will the state make people wait to receive the benefits they need? How long will they fail families and defy their federal obligation to pay “when due?” We can’t afford to wait another day.
Barney Oursler writes on behalf of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee. John Dodds writes on behalf of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project.