Pa. unemployment system to undergo long sought upgrade in June, though concerns linger

The Department of Labor and Industry's unemployment webpage.

An upgrade more than a decade in the making is finally coming to the Pennsylvania unemployment compensation system.

The Department of Labor and Industry announced Thursday that the system, which pays out unemployment insurance to jobless workers, will move over to an upgraded system and modern website on June 8.

The new website will process standard unemployment compensation, pandemic emergency benefits, extended benefits, short-term compensation and payments to workers displaced by foreign trade will be processed in the new system.

The new website will allow for benefit-seekers to file new cases, appeal and reopen a claim, check the status of their payments, and set such options as how to withhold federal taxes.

For employers, the system also will allow them to access more information, such as notices of separation and hearing dates, in real time.

Department Secretary Jennifer Berrier said in a statement that the upgraded site “will be easy to use, provide access to important information, and streamline the unemployment claim filing process for workers, employers, unemployment program staff, and third-party administrators.”

To allow for the transition, the current online system will go offline two weeks prior to that date. Additional details on the crossover will be available in the future.

That delay raised concerns with advocates for the unemployed.

“What the hell are they supposed to do for two weeks?” asked Barney Oursler, a former steelworker who runs the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee. 

Overall, Oursler told the Capital-Star that he was “very afraid” of how the role out of the new system would go for those depending on benefits, given the issues claimants have faced over the past year, from payments stoppages to long wait times for help.

As of February, the most recently available data, 1.2 million people are still claiming some form of unemployment benefits in Pennsylvania.

Some of the issues can be traced back to the four decade old programming that the state used to process benefits. Workers had to use a side program to input claims from anyone making six digits salaries.

The state first moved to replace the system under former Gov. Ed Rendell, when the state signed a contract with IBM in 2006.

That contract expired in 2013, but the work wasn’t anywhere close to done. The state is suing over the failure.

To keep the project moving, GOP Gov. Tom Corbett and the Republican-controlled Legislature allocated $178 million to finish part of the upgrade by 2016.

‘14,000 attempts’: Balky technology, expiring unemployment benefits worry workers, state leaders

Those funds, however, ended up being spent on personnel costs rather than the new tech under both Corbett and his successor, current Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat.

When that funding ran out with nothing to show, a stand-off between Wolf and the General Assembly — in particular, then-state Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York — ensued.

Wolf requested more money to finally complete the project, but Wagner and a faction of conservative Senate Republicans blocked Wolf’s proposal. This battle over funding led three unemployment call centers to close, and forced the layoff of 500 employees who processed claims.

Finally, in late 2017, a compromise funding proposal was signed into law. The deadline to finish the modernization timeline was set for 2020.

That deadline was again pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians lost their jobs and turned to federally boosted unemployment benefits.

Crushed by more applications in a year than the system faced during the entire Great Recession, jobless benefit-seekers faced balky tech and long waits for help. The Department delayed implementing the new system last fall to avoid compounding those existing issues.

Now, with the end finally in sight, there is a feeling of cautious optimism, said Steve Catanese, president of Service Employees International Union Local 668, which represents the workers who process unemployment claims.

More training is needed, Catanese said, but the new technology will likely make the processing claims easier.

And either way, a human touch is still necessary to review and adjudicate some claims, no matter how modern the technology.

“It’s not like you’re just getting automated everything,” Catanese said. “This isn’t Amazon. I think we’re thankful for that.”

The department is already training hundreds of new customer service staff and interviewers to help claimants with their benefits.

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