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Economy & Business

Unemployed Advocates Call For Benefits To Be Restored

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Ashton Jones
90.5 WESA
Advocates rally in downtown Pittsburgh for the return of unemployment benefits that they say have been stopped for some claimants on Tuesday, July 20, 2021.

Advocates for out-of-work Pennsylvanians rallied in downtown Pittsburgh Tuesday, calling on the state Department of Labor and Industry to reinstate unemployment benefits that they allege have been improperly halted for thousands of claimants.

“You can't cut them off without giving them a chance to fight for their benefits, without giving them a decision and letting them fight for an appeal,” said Barney Oursler, citing a U.S. Supreme Court case. Oursler heads the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, an advocacy group.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry said it is “actively reviewing the claimants’ allegations that their benefits were stopped.”

unemployment employment job jobless benefits coronavirus rally.jpg
Ashton Jones

The state took a major step forward in a $35 million benefits modernization project in June, which replaced the state’s decades old computer system with a more up-to-date one.

A report submitted earlier this month to the state legislature by a modernization advisory committee noted that compared with other similar projects around the country, Pennsylvania’s benefits modernization upgrade was relatively smooth. However, the report noted there has been a significant drop in filings, suggesting that not all claimants are able to file in the new system. It was this group that Oursler and other advocates pointed to on Tuesday.

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Ashton Jones

“It's just a messed up situation,” said Ed Jackson, who had been laid off from a food service job. “Because, then they're telling people 'you'll get your check.' But creditors and stuff don't want to hear that.”

Jackson said his benefits were halted after the change to the new system, until the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee helped him restore them.

“Unemployment was designed so people didn't lose their homes, were able to put food on the table, gave them hope to where they need to go,” said Darrin Kelly, president of the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council.

The Department of Labor and Industry said it has issued nearly 1.6 million payments totaling over $1.37 billion under the new system since it launched June 8.

“These statistics show that individuals are successfully filing for and receiving their benefits each week using the new unemployment benefit system,” said Penny Ickes, a spokesperson for the department.

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Ashton Jones

Following a wave of out-of-work Pennsylvanians filing claims due to state-ordered public health measures last year, the state’s unemployment system has struggled to determine legitimate claims from fraudulent ones, to pay out a backlog of claims, and was challenged by an increase in fraudulent claims after the recent implementation of a new online filing system.

The department also recently disclosed it had been overcharging interest on unemployment overpayments; it revealed the error after investigative news organization Spotlight PA asked for comment before it planned to publish a story on the issue. The department has also faced criticisms for near constant busy signals on phone lines during the past year, leaving many unemployed Pennsylvanians unable to reach anyone at the Department of Labor and Industry to assist with problems.

“The Pennsylvania unemployment system is failing unemployed people in this state,” Oursler said.

Laura Benshoff of WHYY contributed to this report.