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Politics & Government

'Pay Benefits Now': Unemployed And Legislators Continue To Push PA Officials To Fix Over-Burdened System Backlogs

UC protest 4-14-21.jpg
Kate Giammarise
90.5 WESA
Demonstrators outside Gov. Tom Wolf's regional office in downtown Pittsburgh on April 14, 2021.

A small group of unemployed workers and activists protested downtown Wednesday outside of Gov. Tom Wolf’s regional office, asking the state pay more than 200,000 backlogged unemployment claims. The group was turned away by a building security guard when they attempted to deliver a letter with their demands to Wolf’s office.

“I'm a single mother of two children. I have been unemployed now for three months. I have gotten zero benefits or any information about when I will get these benefits,” said Kate Potter, who lives in Brighton Heights, and was among the demonstrators. “I don't know when this money is coming, I don't know how I'm going to pay my mortgage. I am terrified. This is unacceptable and I am not the only one, unfortunately.”

The protest came on the same day as a statehouse hearing where representatives asked officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry about continued problems with the state’s unemployment system, and a planned major system upgrade in June.

The computer modernization has been delayed previously and has been in the works for more than a decade. When officials announced the switch earlier this month, they pledged the new system "will be easy to use, provide access to important information and streamline the unemployment claim process for workers, employers, unemployment program staff, and third-party administrators."

Still, a number of representatives said they are still hearing regularly from constituents who can’t access their benefits and have no answers as to why.

The backlog of claims is “one of the pain points” currently in the system, said Acting Secretary for the Department of Labor and Industry Jennifer Berrier, in response to a question from State Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Lawrenceville. Numbers submitted in Berrier’s previous testimony show over 200,000 pending determinations between the regular unemployment system and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

Rep. Nick Pisciottano, D- West Mifflin, asked if the agency’s upcoming benefits modernization, set to take place in June, would hinder the department’s ability to clear the backlog. Deputy Secretary William Trusky said it is possible there could be a slowdown as the agency gets closer to switching to its new system in early June.

“We have a lot on our plate,” he said, though he said the newly modernized system should make it easier to work through the backlog.

Advocates like Barney Oursler, who heads the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, and led the protest Wednesday morning, said he is worried the planned upgrade won’t help people who can’t afford to keep waiting.

“We don't believe that the unemployment system is going to be able to do both, go back and fix the problems they've had already, and start this new system,” he said.

Laid off workers also rallied last month as well, demanding the state answer calls from the out of work; the state has said it will hire additional staff to answer phones.