Unanswered calls, unwritten checks; struggles continue for PA unemployment office


HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — It is a familiar story for many Pennsylvanians.

“My husband and I had a little bit of savings and it’s now depleted,” said Rebekah Smith, of Adams County.

Smith and her husband have five children and, because of Covid-19, one less income. Rebekah filed for unemployment and says some days she called dozens of times to inquire about her money.

“All you get is a busy signal,” Rebekah said. “At one point, my husband, my daughter, and myself all were calling trying to get through.”

That, too, is a familiar story.

“I’ve had individuals try to call hundreds of times a day and when they say they got through I say, ‘Did you play the lottery today?'” said Rep. Kate Klunk (R-York).

She carries a list of her constituents who have been unable to cash in despite filing claims in March or April. The list is several pages long. At a House hearing on Wednesday, the state said it hopes to make everyone whole by October. “That’s just unacceptable,” Klunk said.

“To be sure, this process has not been perfect,” said Jerry Oleksiak, Pennsylvania’s Labor and Industry secretary.

Oleksiak testified that his department has heard the complaints — loudly and clearly — and that it is doing its level best to keep up with demand during an unprecedented pandemic.

His agency has added more staff but he reminded lawmakers that the speed and severity of the crisis are unprecedented in PA history.

“We have been told by others that we are quote ‘tone-deaf’ to the plight of our fellow citizens,” Oleksiak testified. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

He said with pride that his team is reducing the suffering and that 98 percent of claimants have now been paid. But that remaining two percent represents 30,000 PA residents.

“I’m not hearing from the 98 percent,” shot back Rep. James Gregory (R-Blair). “I’m hearing from the two percent.”

So is Rep. Dawn Keefer (R-York). She says unlike UC, her office does answer the phone and frequently its angry and unemployed constituents on the other end of the line.

“These individuals have been waiting and waiting and they’re desperate,” Keefer said of the hundreds of calls her staffers have fielded.  “So my staff is just getting berated by these individuals who are at their wit’s end.”

The hearing focused on percentages of Pennsylvanians served and the progress the department is making, but they can lose sight of the people who are impacted. People like Rebekah Smith and her family. She applied for benefits May 5. She finally received a lump sum last week. Call it a bit of success with a lot of inconvenience, anxiety, and frustration.

“We’ve had to really cut back on things,” Smith said of the several months she went without unemployment benefits. “We had to call lenders and ask them to put payments on hold.”

Oleksiak insisted that as bad as the problems have been in this state, Pennsylvania is faring about as well as every other state in processing claims amidst a pandemic.

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