When Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all non-life-sustaining businesses to temporarily close their doors last month to help slow the spread of COVID-19, countless Pennsylvanians were left jobless. Naturally, with bills to pay and families to feed, they applied for unemployment benefits.
From Sunday, March 15 to Monday, March 30, the state Department of Labor & Industry received 834,684 claims – a historic number, according to Secretary Jerry Oleksiak. Because of this unprecedented uptick, phone lines have been constantly busy, the website has crashed multiple times, and citizens are worried they won’t receive their benefits in time to cover expenses.
In order to address these concerns, Oleksiak and Susan Dickinson, Director of Unemployment Compensation Benefits Policy, hosted a press WebEx session, during which they discussed steps the department is taking to handle the massive volume of claims.
“Unlike some of the other states that did this, Pennsylvania does not have any kind of a mandatory sick leave, or mandatory family medical leave, as many other large states do. So, we are the first place that many people can turn to when they face unemployment issues,” Oleksiak said when asked why so many are applying for unemployment. “We know it’s frustrating for people when they have wait times or they have difficulty getting through, but we’re doing all we can. We’re asking you to be as patient as much as possible. Don’t get discouraged.”
Dickinson urged individuals with internet access to file a claim online at uc.pa.gov, which she said is much faster than doing so by phone. For those unsure about when to start the process, they should file the week they are first unemployed.
“If you know on Friday, for example, you’re going to be unemployed the next week, then don’t open your claim on Friday. It’s too early. You have to be unemployed first,” she said.
Once the claim is filed, Dickinson compared the process to receiving a paycheck after two weeks of work.
“You don’t get paid right away. You are then unemployed for two weeks [after filing the claim]. You call or go online to file your continued claim, or a bi-weekly claim. What that means is, you’re certifying that you have been unemployed for the last two weeks,” she explained. “Once you tell us that you have been unemployed for the last two weeks, we go ahead and submit the payment for you, and you get that in a couple days.”
Those approved for unemployment benefits receive a debit card. Dickinson stressed that the card will not have money on it at first, and this is how it should be. The department adds payments to the card after two weeks of unemployment.
Unemployment recipients are also assigned a PIN. They should use that number to file every two weeks. While some pins may not reach the individual in time to file, Dickinson said this is not an issue.
“What they have to do is just wait for their PIN, and if the week expires and they have not filed, we’re going to open up more weeks for them so that they can file,” she said. “Normally, people file two weeks at a time. They’ll be able to file three or four weeks at a time. We’re making sure we take care of anyone who may have missed that window for filing.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many to file for unemployment for the first time, and the majority are unsure if they qualify. Dickinson said to simply apply anyway, and the department will determine eligibility.
Additional areas covered during the WebEx session included whether or not furloughed employees are allowed to file claims (the answer was yes); the typical percentage of normal wages provided by unemployment (it’s designed to be about half); how the department is looking to add more remote staff members to handle phone traffic; how new claimants will receive a confirmation at the end of the process stating the claim went through (if the website was down, they should be able to log in to double check); and how the department is working to reactivate old programs for individuals who exhausted their benefits in the last two weeks.
Oleksiak provided a few final words.
“We want to respond. We are doing what we can,” he said. “It’s our goal to be as open and transparent as possible with the very fluid, evolving, unprecedented crisis situation that we are facing. Thank you to the citizens of Pennsylvania for their patience and understanding as we deal with these numbers.”
Visit uc.pa.gov/Pages/default.aspx for more information.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com