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'Answer The Phone!' Unemployed Rally For More State Assistance

Carrying signs reading, “Answer the Unemployed!” and “Answer the phone,” dozens of unemployed workers and their supporters rallied downtown Wednesday morning outside of Gov. Tom Wolf’s regional office, calling for improvements to Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation system.

Shortly before the demonstration, the state Department of Labor and Industry announced that 500-1,000 new customer service representatives will be added to the unemployment compensation call center so that experienced existing staff can work on resolving claims.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
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A demonstrator holds up a paper back with a message about unemployment at a rally downtown on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

Not being able to get through to the state Department of Labor and Industry has been a consistent complaint of laid-off workers for months.

Those at the rally said they view the news as a good first step, but far short of what it is needed.

“We can no longer wait for the state to do its job. The unemployment system is broken. It's been broken a whole year now and we can't wait any longer,” said Barney Oursler, director of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee.

The committee and Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid Group organized the demonstration; another rally took place in Philadelphia as well.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
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Barney Oursler, director of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, speaks to the crowd.

  We're not ...numbers. We're not percentages… these are people who have to choose between putting food on the table and paying the rent because it’s [unemployment compensation] not coming through,” said Larisa Mednis, a restaurant worker and advocacy organizer at Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid.

Those at the rally cited testimony from earlier this year by the department’s secretary that more than 200,000 Pennsylvanians were still awaiting decisions on their unemployment compensation eligibility, as well as a need for some 2,000 intake workers. 

The agency said Wednesday it is working with its call center vendor, InspiriTec, to hire new staff by June, and said it could hire up to 1,000 total new staff “if needed.” The $58.6 million cost will come from federal funding, the department said.

Election night results for Pennsylvania governor, the U.S. Senate race, and the 12th and 17th congressional districts.