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Politics & Government

A Better Unemployment System For Pennsylvania Is On Track To Launch In June. Expect Some Hiccups.

unemployment rally pittsburgh
Katie Blackley
/
90.5 WESA
Two people hold signs at a rally in support of unemployed people in downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

Long-awaited upgrades to Pennsylvania’s online unemployment benefits system are expected to be ready to launch by early summer.

Earlier this month, the state Department of Labor and Industry pointed to June 8 as the day it would launch a new-and-improved way to file unemployment claims, get updates, send messages to department employees, and more in real time. It would replace a benefits system that’s been in place since the 1980s.

“We believe that the conditions are right to go live with the new system in June, and we’re very excited for it to do just that because of the efficiencies it will create,” Acting Secretary Jennifer Berrier said during a House Labor and Industry committee meeting Wednesday.

The final phases have been on hold since late last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but all workers have to do now is some fine-tuning and system tests.

Berrier said it’s designed to help workers file their claims and get updates faster by offering a place to send and receive important documents online. Labor & Industry department data shows well over 2 million people overall filed for unemployment since March of last year.

On top of people using a clunky, outdated computer system, Berrier said, paperwork backups have been one of the reasons it’s taken Labor and Industry claims examiners so long to review many requests for unemployment checks. Those who are out of work and lawmakers alike have been demanding a quicker process since the pandemic began.

“Some of those small tiny administrative things that were problems in the current legacy system will be very easy to use in the new system,” Berrier said.

It’s estimated the changes will help examiners process claims up to 10 percent faster. But before out-of-work people and employers can start benefiting from that, they’ll have to learn how to use the new system.

“Folks are going to have to be patient with the system,” Deputy Secretary William Trusky said. “There will be a learning period with regards to people being able to do more for themselves: with that will come more questions.”

Trusky said frustrations are sure to start piling up at first, especially since IT workers are expected to shut down online access for up to two weeks before the new system goes live. That’s the amount of time it may take to transfer user and claims data to their new home.

Berrier said the agency is ready — with user guides, workshops and town halls all in the works to make sure workers and employers know how to use the new system. It’s even planning to hire between 500 to 1,000 customer service workers to answer questions as they come up.

Rep. Eric Nelson (R-Westmoreland County) said he’s hoping the department will follow through on those promises. Like many state lawmakers, his office has been flooded with calls from angry people wanting more information about their unemployment claim.

“One of the biggest frustrations that we’ve seen from constituents is that there has not been even a return email for almost their full claim experience coming from the department,” he said.

Even with the upgraded tech, claims workers and others will still have their work cut out for them. Right now, 40,000 Pennsylvanians are still waiting for someone to resolve an issue with their claim.

Tens of thousands more people who are out of work filed for traditional unemployment and the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program in just the last week, though that’s a big dip from when more than 300,000 were filing back in the early days of the pandemic.

Berrier said the Labor and Industry Department aims to hire between 50 and 80 more people in the coming months just to help break up that backlog.