(TNS) — Two Pennsylvania state lawmakers said they want to know why some people have waited weeks, even months, for unemployment assistance.
State Reps. Tim O’Neal, R-Washington, and Joe Ciresi, D-Montgomery, said Tuesday they want an investigation of the state’s unemployment system failures during the coronavirus pandemic. They sent a letter to House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and want the House Government Oversight Committee to investigate.
“Week after week, year after year, most workers contributed to the Unemployment Trust Fund through payroll deductions,” Ciresi said in a statement. “Yet the failures of this system have left too many without income during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when they need these benefits more than ever.”
As of Monday, more than 2.2 million Pennsylvania residents have filed unemployment compensation claims. Thousands of businesses were shut down under Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders to try and slow the spread of the virus. The labor department struggled to deal with the overwhelming numbers of people seeking aid.
At the same time, lawmakers have hammered the department for delays in filing some claims. O’Neal said he’s working on a bipartisan effort with Ciresi to address the unemployment system’s problems.
“Ensuring a program works as it’s designed to work is obviously a non-partisan issue,” O’Neal said in a statement. “We need to make sure Pennsylvanians will never again face this issue.”
Labor & Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak said Monday more than 90 percent of eligible claimants have received a payment. The labor department has paid more than $21.5 billion in unemployment compensation benefits since March 15.
The department has hired more than 300 employees to help handle the number of claims and more than 300 state workers from other agencies have been tapped to help as well. Customer service staff have logged 172,000 hours in overtime since March 15, Oleksiak said Monday.
Mike Straub, a spokesman for Cutler, said in an email a House oversight committee investigation “is certainly possible, and we will work quickly to determine if that is the correct course of action.”
“The administration’s handling of unemployment claims, payments, processing and even just providing information has been shameful on behalf of Pennsylvanians in need,” Straub said.
In their letter to Cutler, the lawmakers note the General Assembly has directed funds to improve the unemployment compensation system.
“Despite these systems upgrades and continued work on overall system modernization, our program has failed to handle the strain of the 2.1 million unemployment claims created by the COVID-l9 pandemic,” O’Neal and Ciresi wrote.
The lawmakers acknowledged the labor department’s efforts to improve but insist an investigation is needed.
“While we appreciate the work of Secretary Oleksiak during this pandemic and towards system modernization, we urge that this investigation take place so that we can move forward to ensure that should another pandemic, or similar situation, hit the Commonwealth, the residents of Pennsylvania can be assured that they will not face the same issues,” O’Neal and Ciresi wrote.
Other lawmakers are pursuing remedies to deal with unemployment claims.
State Reps. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, and Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill, have sent a memo to fellow lawmakers saying they plan to introduce a bill that would allow legislative staff to help process unemployment claims.
Oleksiak on Monday announced that people who exhaust their regular unemployment compensation and federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation may now qualify for 13 additional weeks of payments through the state’s Unemployment Compensation Extended Benefits program.
The labor department has also been dealing with reports of scams and attempts at identity theft, which state and federal authorities are investigating.
Authorities say scammers have used stolen identities of people to file claims for unemployment benefits. Then, scammers direct the money to be sent to their own bank accounts. Victims of identity theft find out their personal information was stolen when they receive an unemployment compensation check, or a direct deposit of unemployment aid, for which they never applied.
The vast majority of reports of fraudulent claims had proven to be valid claims, Oleksiak said in a news conference Monday.
“Fraud attempts like these are a national problem and should serve as a reminder to everyone to be as vigilant as possible,” Oleksiak said.
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