Beep. Beep. Beep.
The hollow sound of impotence echoed out from Republican state Rep. Natalie Mihalek’s cellphone Tuesday during a budget hearing with Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor and Industry.
“Can you all hear that? I‘m trying to get in touch with someone at the department,” Washington County’s Mihalek told her colleagues and L&I Secretary Jennifer Berrier. “I have been all morning. I have been for 11 months.”
The day-long hearing with the department, which manages the state’s unemployment compensation system, turned into a parade of concerns raised by legislators from both parties.
They took L&I to task for Pennsylvanians’ trouble accessing jobless benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed 24,000 people and put millions out of work in the Keystone State alone.
People seeking benefits have faced long wait times and delayed responses to questions, slow adjudication of denied claims — on average, 92 days — seemingly random payments stoppages, and mistaken overpayments that are rectified by cutting future dollars.
Lawmakers highlighted much of this Tuesday.
“Other people who have called us are, quite honestly, near the point of suicide,” Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, told Berrier. She added: “Constituents who really, after an entire year of this, do not know where to turn.”
Berrier, the department’s acting secretary after the December retirement of former chief Jerry Oleksiak, took the verbal blows, agreeing with Fiedler and Mihalek that the system’s performance was subpar.
But she added that such service “doesn’t happen in a vacuum.” The department had to stretch limited resources to meet the overwhelming demand for benefits when Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf closed businesses earlier this year due to the coronavirus.
In the past 11 months, laid off workers put in 5.2 million unemployment claims, Berrier said. That’s three million more than the department received during the three year peak of the 2008 recession.
This flood of jobless claims came as the staffing at unemployment call centers were “dangerously low,” Berrier, a 15-year veteran of the department’s workplace safety and labor relations bureaus, added.
The staffing issues stem from a funding debate between Wolf and the Republican-controlled General Assembly in 2016. A Wolf proposed funding plan passed the House but fell flat in the Senate.
The state closed three call centers and furloughed 500 workers. A compromise bill passed the next year. But as of this year, the department was still 220 employees short of its normal complement.
Lawmakers compared the department’s failures at a seemingly simple task to the country’s recent landing of a rover on Mars. But Service Employees International Union 668 President Steve Catanese, head of the call center workers’ union, said it wasn’t a fair comparison.
“If NASA didn’t pay for, say — enough fuel to get the Rover to Mars, it’d be a failure,” Catanese tweeted Tuesday. “In Pennsylvania, we knew how much we needed to keep the UC program healthy. We paid for a half-tank of gas and expected the car to make it cross-country because the driver was good.”
The department is seeking $79 million in the 2021-22 budget, barely a tenth of a percent increase in last year’s $78.9 million budget.
Pressed by lawmakers, Berrier didn’t have a price tag to fix the issues. The department is monitoring the advancing federal stimulus bill in Washington D.C., and expects to receive extra funding.
But the real limiting factor, Berrier said, is a lack of staff trained in using the state’s 60+ year old unemployment system.
In the meantime, the department is trying to increase the number of cases they examine each week, from 7,000 to 10,000.
And the demand for their help won’t be disappearing soon. Berrier said about 500,000 of the jobs lost from Wolf’s business closures appear permanent.