HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Christy Rinker hadn’t gotten her first dime of Pennsylvania unemployment compensation five months after being laid off.
She recalled countless busy signals, unanswered emails and an occasional successful attempt to reach a person — only to be given bad or conflicting information, she said.
But just like month after month during her ordeal, the evening news told a different story: Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate was just 4.5 percent, lower than at any time since 2019 and among the lowest it had ever been.
Rinker’s question about that rate: “If they’re getting it directly from [Pa.’s Department of] Labor and Industry, then… who knows how accurate it is? Because I know I don’t have a claim filed.”
So she called the people who reported that rate to ask that question — and to get a resolution for herself and (surely, she figured) plenty of other people.
“I know I’m not the only one,” Rinker said. “I cannot be the only one who’s having this problem.”
She’s not. But first, an answer to the the question about whether the official jobless rate could be missing people like Rinker.
In a word?
“No,” said Susan Dickinson, Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary of unemployment compensation.
A few more words of explanation: “Because the unemployment claims statistics — how many claims we got — isn’t factored into the unemployment rate. The unemployment rate is a monthly survey of 60,000 households across the U.S.”
The federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that.
The reason for the methodology?
“Just because you’re unemployed doesn’t mean you have a claim,” Dickinson said. (Just ask Christy Rinker.) “So long ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics decided, ‘You know, using claims information is inaccurate. We can’t do that.’ So that’s why they do this national survey.”
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Rinker’s difficulty filing what should have been a routine claim — after a rather straightforward layoff in March — traced to a fraudulent claim, in 2021, by someone else in her name back when she was still working. She and her then-employer both reported it, and no money ever went out to the fraudster. But ironically, that quick action might have partly caused the problems after Rinker really did lose her job.
She says more often then not, she got busy signals when she tried to call to ask why her claim wasn’t being processed, even when she dialed right at 8 a.m., when Labor and Industry’s (L&I) call center opened. And she says when she did manage to reach people, she got conflicting information: One agent told her she couldn’t get her money until an audit of the old claim was complete; another told her there couldn’t be an audit, because audits only happen when fraud attempts are successful — and again, no money went out.
The morning when we visited her — a day after we first asked about her case — an agent had already called her. By that afternoon, a claims examiner had approved 19 weeks of unemployment checks she was was owed. By two days later, the money was in her bank account.
Rinker said she won’t rest until less squeaky wheels — who don’t get the attention of TV newsrooms — get their money too.
Dickinson provided three tips to reach the department if you do need to speak with someone personally:
- “Check our website, and try to learn some of the things we have out there,” she said. “We do put a lot of information out to try to help people help themselves, just because we know it is difficult to get a hold of us sometimes.”
If you still need to speak with an agent:
- This might seem counterintuitive, but 8 a.m. actually isn’t the best time to call. “It is better toward the end of the day and toward the end of the week,” Dickinson said.
- End of the week is also related to another way to speak with an agent: in person, by scheduling a half-hour appointment on a Monday or Tuesday at a CareerLink location. A federal program is funding that temporary option, which — although on balance a great thing, Dickinson said — does remove some agents from call centers on Mondays and Tuesdays, hence the advice about calling later in the week.
She said the system is in far better shape than early in the year, when tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians saw their unemployment checks siphoned away through cases of “bank hijacking.”
“We haven’t — and I’m knocking on wood — haven’t had any major fraud incidents lately,” Dickinson said.
She credited the implementation earlier this year of security measures, including multifactor authentication.
Dickinson said the fraud prevented what could have been a quicker recovery from record levels of unemployment claims.
“At the height of the pandemic, we had over 300,000 cases pending that we had to take care of,” Dickinson said. “And now we have 66,000 cases pending. So we’re making progress.”
She said the oldest unresolved cases go back months, but it’s not first come, first serve. Rather, the department tries to prioritize cases in which a legitimate unemployment claimant is missing money over other issues.
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Dickinson said busy signals and long hold times trace to understaffing of positions where retention is a problem.
“We have high turnover here, because it’s a difficult job,” she said. “You’re taking phone calls all day from people who are upset.”
But 80 new agents started Monday, Dickinson said — they’re training now and will begin answering calls and emails within a few weeks. Another class — with an as-yet-unknown number of trainees — will begin a few weeks later.
“We’ll take all the help we can get,” she said. “And so we’re excited to have these new individuals starting with us soon. And then we’ll continue hiring, as we always do.”
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Dickinson said the low unemployment rate — which, yes, really is low, even though she acknowledged that’s small consolation to an individual struggling to claim benefits — is also helping the department reduce its backlog of claims.
“When it comes to incoming work, you know, that’s where we’re in great shape, because there just aren’t a lot of claims coming in,” she said. “We’re actually making pretty good progress and a pretty good dent in those backlogs.”