(TNS) — Despite an overwhelmed system and a record-shattering number of unemployment claims, officials with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry say they have been able to make payments on roughly half of the claims filed far.
And with more help coming soon to answer phones and emails and to help move those claims through, Secretary of Labor and Industry Jerry Oleksiak said in a teleconference with reporters Monday he expects to pick up the pace and meet the demands of the record unemployment that came from business shutdowns due to the coronavirus.
“I know that people are frustrated when they try to get through on our call lines,” Oleksiak said. “It continues to be the focus of our agency to make sure we are responding as quickly and effectively as we can, given the numbers.”
In perhaps an ironic twist, if you are unemployed right now, you may be able to go to work for the unemployment office.
Between March 15 and Monday morning, there have been 1,134,053 new unemployment claims, he said. For comparison, in the three-week period prior to that, the department saw just 40,000 claims. The previous record high for weekly claims was 61,181 back January 2010.
They have also received 133 worker’s compensation claims, 132 of which are COVID-19 related from health care workers, first responders and law enforcement.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” Unemployment Compensation Benefits Policy Director Susan Dickinson said.
It created concern of an unemployment system that seems to be overwhelmed with record-shattering unemployment numbers. Many who are filing claims expressed frustration at the amount of time they’ve spent trying to get through to the office, and worried they may not be able to make ends meet before their payments come through.
It doesn’t help that the system the department is using is roughly 40 to 50 years old. Despite its age, Oleksiak said there have been few problems, due in part to an IT staff that "is working wonders to keep it running.”
The system itself is solid, Dickinson explained. The problem is that many of its functions are not automated and need to be conducted by people.
The department is getting a new system in October, and though that will likely be too late to help with the claims filed now, department officials will be incorporating the lessons they’ve learned into this new system should there be another event like the coronavirus.
Despite the clogged phone lines, the old system and the backlog of emails, Oleksiak pointed out that of the 1.1 million claims they have received so far, more than 540,000 people have received their benefits so far.
They are also hiring 100 new employees to help people get their benefits faster. Along with the 600 staff members working now, more were brought in from other state departments to help answer calls and emails, and even retired unemployment compensation workers and those in administrative offices have stepped in to help take calls and move the claims through.
But even with all of the extra help, Dickinson encourages people to file their claims online by visiting the department’s website, which has been upgraded to be fully compatible with mobile devices. Everything can be done online, she said, and there are FAQs to help guide people through the claim-filing process.
Once someone files their claim, they will be issued a personal identification number, along with paperwork and instructions. After that, they will still need to file every two weeks to collect their unemployment compensation.
The good news, though, is once someone has successfully filed, they will not need to take any more actions to receive the additional $600 in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which she noted will come in a separate payment.
If someone does not have Internet access, they can still call in, 888-313-7214, but Dickinson said long waits can be expected. That is the number to call for the initial claim. The bi-weekly filing after receiving one’s first payment is 888-255-4728.
Questions can be emailed to UCHelp@pa.gov, but right now, it is taking up to 11 days to answer emails due to the volume.
“We will take care of everyone’s concerns, and we have more people helping us every day,” Dickinson said.
She said those who are filing for unemployment will not be penalized for any delays due to a slowed system. Normally, someone can only file for the previous two weeks of unemployment, but that restriction is has been waived so people can file for any number of weeks of payments they may have missed while waiting to receive their personal identification number.
As the department upgrades its systems, they are getting some help from an unlikely source. They are currently testing the Watson, the artificial intelligence system made famous on Jeopardy 2011, to answer some frequently asked questions, Oleksiak said. It is expected to be implemented soon.
Despite the struggles on their end and the frustrations on the end of those filing for unemployment, department officials say they are learning some important lessons that will be incorporated into the new system in October.
“We’ll all remember this for a long time to come,” Dickinson said.
©2020 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.