HARRISBURG – Thousands of honest, hard-working and eligible Pennsylvania workers who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic still have not received the unemployment compensation (UC) benefits they deserve. House Labor and Industry Committee Chairman Jim Cox (R-Berks/Lancaster) today in Harrisburg convened a meeting to hold accountable the top administrators responsible for operating the Commonwealth’s UC programs and identify why the system failed so many people.
“Unemployment compensation benefits are supposed to act like a parachute to help dislocated workers experiencing an economic freefall,” Cox said. “For too many Pennsylvanians, that parachute simply never opened. They and their families are still freefalling.”
Top administrators from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (L&I) testified and tried to focus on the people who did receive help through the traditional UC program and the federal extensions in response to COVID-19. Cox and his colleagues on the committee continually steered the conversation back to the thousands of unemployed workers who still are waiting for an answer to their claims, which is a precursor for collecting benefits.
L&I Secretary W. Gerard Oleksiak, Executive Deputy Secretary for Administration Robert O’Brien and Deputy Secretary for Unemployment Compensation Programs William Trusky participated in the meeting by videoconference. They brought with them statistics about the amount of money that has been disbursed through UC programs; the number of new workers they hired and how many hours they worked; the number of phone calls, emails and online chats they’ve used to communicate with applicants; and the percentage of people who received unemployment benefits during the past several months.
Cox and his colleagues brought something more powerful: the stories of people who were eligible for benefits, but have not yet received them, and the drastic effect that is having on their families.
“My colleagues and I have heard from people in our districts who are eligible for benefits, but they just can’t get through the process,” Cox said. “They tried applying online and the system was down, so they’d try to call and there was no answer. These are good, honest, hard-working people who just want to keep a roof over their heads, pay their bills and put food on the table. Their stories and their struggles are truly heartbreaking.”
Local media outlets across the Commonwealth are telling the stories of unemployed workers who have experienced problems with the UC system.
Legislators at the hearing referenced one recent article written by Paul Muschick and published by The Morning Call titled “Unemployed, and no answers for unpaid claims: ‘Nobody should be treated this way.’” The article tells the story of Doug Daniel, one of the thousands of unemployed Pennsylvanians who were frustrated by the UC system and their inability to access their benefits. Daniel received some UC benefits after the reporter placed calls to the Department of Labor and Industry, but not every applicant has a media outlet helping them to shake free the money while holding accountable the system.
“Doug Daniel is right when he says that nobody should be treated this way,” Cox said. “Pennsylvanians who lost their jobs due to no fault of their own deserve an unemployment compensation system that answers their calls, responds to their questions and delivers the benefits they deserve.”
The meeting also discussed recent spikes in UC fraud that corresponded with the drastic increase in applications and benefit disbursements as a result of the COVID-19 economic shutdown.
Keith Welks, deputy treasurer for fiscal operations at the Pennsylvania Office of the State Treasurer, talked about efforts to ensure benefits reach their intended recipients. While the Department of Labor and Industry processes UC claims, the Office of the State Treasurer is tasked with making the payments.
Carl Hammersburg, manager of government and health care risk and fraud at SAS, testified about national trends in UC fraud.
Legislators were adamant about protecting unsuspecting Pennsylvanians who may have had a fraudulent UC claim submitted in their name without their knowledge.
“We’ve had people come to our offices with checks that showed up in their mailboxes even though they never applied for them,” Cox said. “We want to make sure the person who filed the fraudulent claim is prosecuted, but the person who received the undesired check won’t be harassed or threatened with being arrested.”
Cox said he appreciates all the efforts and extra work being performed by Department of Labor and Industry personnel. He, however, will not stop pushing until every eligible claimant has received his or her benefits.
“We want to make sure everyone who is eligible for one of those economic parachutes receives it,” Cox said. “I’m going to keep pushing as long as I see eligible unemployed Pennsylvanians waiting to receive their parachutes.”
Representative Jim Cox
Pennsylvania House of Representatives