Hundreds of thousands in PA are still waiting on unemployment compensation… is anything being done to speed up the process?

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PHILIPSBURG, CLEARFIELD COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ)– Millions of Pennsylvanians are eligible for unemployment as a result of layoffs/reduced hours due to Covid-19.

Since mid-March, close to 1.7 million in PA have filed for unemployment–many of these claims are from those applying for the first time.

But, PA officials report hundreds of thousands of people are not receiving unemployment because PA’s Department of Labor and Industry simply does not have enough employees to process the large volume of claims.

Thursday, WTAJ spoke with Tim Gunter from Philipsburg, Clearfield County who–like many others–is still waiting on his unemployment compensation.

The Wait

“Patience is a virtue”.

“All things will come in good time.”

Both are commonly used phrases celebrating a calm and composed demeanor–reinforcing the idea that sometimes things are worth the wait.

But, unemployment compensation is not something most Pennsylvanians have time to wait for… to them patience is not a virtue.

Instead those like Gunter replace patience with persistence–especially when their livelihood is on the line.

Gunter told WTAJ he voluntarily quit a job earlier in the year. He did this with the intention of seeking a new job at CATA, where he was hired. Gunter said he trained for about a month before being laid-off in mid-March (he hopes to be back to work when CATA decides to resume more bus runs).

Gunter said he immediately attempted to call PA’s unemployment line to file a claim. He said he would call before the phone lines officially opened at 8:00 a.m. and periodically throughout the day.

“I’d always get the busy signal,” Gunter said. “Because the system is so bogged down… I’d get disconnected… the phone call would just drop.”

Gunter’s record time on hold: 5 hours and 4 minutes

“I was on hold basically all day long… the phone went everywhere I went. Then just out of nowhere the call dropped. That’s frustrating…. thinking someone has to answer your call and it gets disconnected,” he said.

Gunter added: “I was really persistent, I had people telling me I’d have given up a long time ago, but when you’re trying to find out where your money is… it’s pretty hard to give up.”

On a tip from some friends, Gunter tried filing a claim through PA’s unemployment website (this is the recommendation WTAJ received from PA officials too).

One problem for some, according to PA Representative Scott Conklin (D) from the state’s 77th District, is internet access.

“In Central PA many of our residents don’t have internet,” Rep. Conklin said believing this is why some have struggled to file unemployment claims.

Gunter was successful in filing his claim online. About four weeks later he received a notice in the mail stating he was eligible for unemployment.

However, this is where his story takes a turn.

The Twist

In the video below, Tim Gunter explains how the PA Department of Labor and Industry considered him ineligible for unemployment after sending him a letter stating he was eligible.

Gunter explains why it’s important to follow-up after receiving a confirmation letter. He says what happened to him could be why others aren’t receiving unemployment.

Ultimately he was deemed eligible once again for unemployment–but after a long struggle.

Getting in-touch

In the above video, Gunter explains how he was able to contact someone from PA’s Department of Labor and Industry through a live-chat option.

“You actually talk to somebody in the system, it’s right on the PA unemployment website,” Gunter said. “I continued to hit live chat until I finally got connected… boy that’s exciting when you finally get through.”

As of Thursday, Gunter is now checking the mail everyday, waiting for his unemployment debit card.

“There’s still part of me, even though things are on the right track, that thinks: Will I get my card in the mail? Or did it get lost, will I see it in a couple months?,” he said. “When you think you’re somebody down on your luck, you think… is it ever gonna show up?”

Rep. Conklin told WTAJ the quickest way to receive unemployment funds is through direct deposit.

However, when Gunter first tried to utilize the direct deposit system, he claims the website “was down.”

He said as of Thursday afternoon, it was up and running again. Gunter claimed he would have to wait four-to-six weeks for direct deposit to begin in his bank account.

Current Stats

Gunter is one of hundreds-of-thousands of Pennsylvanians still waiting for unemployment.

“The staffing was not ready to take on this number of individuals being laid off at one time,” Conklin said.

In about two weeks time, PA went from a near all-time low in unemployment, to an all-time high.

According to PA’s department of labor and industry:

  • In February, 2020, 54,200 first-time unemployment claims were approved.
  • In March, 2020, 564,410 first-time unemployment claims were approved.

This is a 941% increase.

This trend applies to Central PA.

For example, according the Department of Labor and Industry’s report of Centre County:

  • In February, 2020, 450 first-time unemployment claims were approved.
  • In March, 2020, 5,000 first-time unemployment claims were approved.

This is a 1,011% increase.

No exact numbers have been released on many have received unemployment compensation in PA and how many are still waiting for UC.

What’s being done to speed-up the process?

PA Governor Tom Wolf hopes that beefing-up unemployment staff will improve efficiency.

Rep. Conklin told WTAJ Thursday: “Today there are almost 900 staff working over there with over 500 of these employees being re-assigned. We’ve brought back 70 of the experienced folks who had retired and more than 250 new hires in the system”

“We are also looking to bring in more, another 100,” Gov. Wolf said.

He added:”One of the problems we had with the call center was high turnover… we’ve worked to re-negotiate their contract to reduce turnover which improves efficiency.”

When a reporter asked Gov. Wolf if he felt they were serving more of PA’s unemployed, he replied: “If we serve 99.9% of the population and miss out on that last .1%, we’re failing. We need to be 100% on this… we’re not there yet and we need to continue to make this operation as efficient as the people of PA deserve it to be. We’re not there yet… and I acknowledge that an apologize for that.”

Below is a summation on the steps taken so far to improve customer service: 

  • Nearly 900 L&I staff working on the UC program are teleworking – with 500 of these employees being reassigned from other agencies to help
  • 70 experienced UC retirees have returned to work
  • More than 250 new hires will bolster the system
  • Over 110,000 calls handled by automated virtual phone assistant IBM Watson

In total, about 1,000 people have been brought-in to assist with unemployment claims.

PA reports over $3.6 billion in benefits has been paid to claimants – nearly $2.7 billion from regular UC and $911 million from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program (extra $600 per week).

Gunter’s Reaction

Gunter said he understands the state is overwhelmed with unemployment claims, but feels more should’ve been done earlier to prevent this back-log.

“Why weren’t they talking about bringing on more staff two months ago when this started snow-balling?” he said. “Why aren’t the people that answer phones for unemployment being asked to work 12-hour shifts?”

He continued: “It’s just really frustrating that you know there’s money out there that’s yours that you just can’t get access to. We know there’s lots of people in the system, but it’s hard to say just wait when you need money to pay bills, or buy groceries, put gas in the car.”

Gunter reached out to Rep. Conklin’s office for assistance. They sent a letter on his behalf.

“Legislation can’t fix this….the only way to fix this is do what we’ve been doing and getting more employees to assist,” Rep Conklin said.

Psychological impacts

“It’s stressful just because of me wanting to provide for the family,” Gunter said. “When you go through this, you feel for anybody who’s in this type of situation.”

He said he’s lucky his wife, a registered nurse, is still working… but he knows others are less fortunate.

“For some, just missing one day’s work put them at a disadvantage, now we’re talking weeks to a month without a paycheck. And now they’re losing not just money, but they psychological effects of going through this,” Rep. Conklin said.

He told WTAJ his office has received numerous calls of concerned residents.

“We have people that are hungry and scared, that don’t have food for the table that we have to take care of,” Rep. Conklin said “Nobody has not been affected by this. There’s nothing worse than working your whole life, struggling everyday and because of something you can’t control–losing every bit that you worked for.”

Conklin said his own family members have not been able to “get through and get their claims done.”

He said once unemployment is approved, applicants will receive checks dating back to their original filing date.

Tips to Apply for Unemployment

In addition to the tips already provided, below are tips from PA’s Department of Labor and Industry for how expedite the process of applying/confirming unemployment compensation.

“L&I is receiving extremely high daily call volumes and we know many people are struggling to reach our call centers. Many answers are available on our website. This will allow our staff to focus on people who do not have internet access, require translation services, or have an issue with a claim.”

Before calling the UC Service Center, L&I recommends the following:

  1. Review COVID-19-related FAQs – Answers to many of your UC questions are in the Frequently Asked Questions section of L&I’s website, as well as on Facebook and Twitter
     
  2. Check your claims status online – If you have your Personal Identification Number (PIN), enter it along with your Social Security number to check your claims status online here
     
  3. Know what to do if you haven’t received your debit card – If you haven’t received your U.S. Bank ReliaCard debit card, log into your UC account online and verify your mailing address. Debit cards are valid for three years,  if you already have a debit card from a previous claim, or reopen an existing claim, you will not receive a new debit card. You will continue to use the original debit card. If your card has been lost or stolen, call U.S. Bank at 888-233-5916. Contact the PA Treasury for basic information about the debit card or direct deposit questions at 877-869-1956. 
     
  4. Apply online now – Need to file a new claim and want to know if you’re eligible? Don’t delay by asking us. Submit your claim and let our staff determine your eligibility. 
     
  5. Wait at least three weeks before requesting a new PIN – If it’s been more than three weeks since you filed an initial claim and you haven’t yet received your PIN, you may request a new one here
     
  6. Other ways to reach us – If you have a genuine issue with your claim, there are several ways to contact UC staff. We have received nearly 1.7 million new claims in just six weeks, please know that others need our help too. You can also use:
  • Virtual assistant – Call 877-978-1295 to have our UC virtual assistant powered by Watson answer your frequently asked questions any time, 24/7. Please note that this system does not connect to our UC Customer Service Center staff and only provides virtual assistance.
     
  • LiveChat – Call 888-313-7284 for a secure 6-digit LiveChat code to reach UC staff Monday through Friday from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM.
     
  • Email – For claims questions, email uchelp@pa.gov and include your full name as it appears on your claim (including suffix used) and the last four digits of your Social Security number. Get email wait response times here. We respond to emails in the order we receive them, so sending duplicates will not result in a quicker response and will actually cause delays for everyone. 
     
  • General contact form – To make a general comment on UC services, or if you have questions not covered by information on www.uc.pa.gov, use this form
     
  • Pennsylvania Teleclaims (PAT) – This automated self-service system can be used to file biweekly UC claims, access specific benefit payment information, or learn about UC without needing to talk to a person. You can also use PAT to request/change federal withholding tax, get UC-1099G information, and change your PIN. For English, call 888-255-4728. For Spanish, call 877-888-8104.
     
  • TTY Services for Deaf and Hard of Hearing – Call 888-334-4046 Monday through Friday from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. 
     
  • Videophone service for ASL users – Call 717-704-8474 Wednesdays from Noon to 4:00 PM. Sign language is the ONLY means of communication provided at this number. 
     
  • IF YOU HAVE TRIED OTHER METHODS TO FIND YOUR ANSWER WITHOUT SUCCESS, try the UC Service Call Center phone –Call 888-313-7284 Monday through Friday from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM to reach UC staff. The best time to try calling the UC service center is Thursdays and Fridays. Be prepared for heavy call volumes, busy signals, and potential delays in getting through.

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