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Politics & Government

Some fixes are still needed for Pennsylvania's unemployment system, committee says

labor and industry building unemployment.jpeg
Jelani Splawn
For Spotlight PA
For unemployed Pennsylvanians, the requirement could create more hurdles to navigate a system riddled with inefficiencies that has left some without benefits for weeks and months.

An identity verification system that was put in place to stop fraudulent unemployment claims continues to be a barrier to some people who need to file legitimate claims, an advocate for unemployed workers said Wednesday.

The application is a significant issue for us. It's a due process problem,” said Julia Simon-Mishel, an attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, speaking at a meeting Wednesday of the state’s Unemployment Compensation Benefits Modernization Advisory Committee Meeting.

Officials from the state Department of Labor and Industry said those claimants are still able to file for benefits over the phone. Reaching the department via phone was a problem for months, though officials said Wednesday it is now possible to do so.

Pennsylvania uses a third-party vendor called to verify the identities of unemployed claimants. Advocates have said this system is extremely challenging to use for low-income people, seniors, and other people who do not have access to computers, smartphones, or who lack government identification.

Simon-Mishel said people should at least be able to file their claim, even if there is a hold placed on payments while their identity is being verified.

I'm going to be on the other side of the argument,” said committee member Geoffrey Moomaw, president of Interstate Tax Service, Inc.

“I am politely begging the department not to do anything, to, I'm going to use the term ‘weaken’ because from the employer community, the fraud issue was a major, major headache and a major concern … I think you have it set up right where it's blocking it right away," he said. "I think that is needed and I ask that it not be changed.”

Officials from the state Department of Labor and Industry said claimants can call in and get assistance, though they conceded the department is harder to reach on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The committee’s job is to advise the state on the implementation of a major technology upgrade to Pennsylvania's outdated system for unemployment compensation benefits. The system underwent the multi-million-dollar upgrade in June; it had been delayed several times and was more than a decade in coming.

A report submitted by the committee in July noted that the rollout of the new computer system was generally smooth, though there was a significant drop in filings, suggesting not all claimants were able to access the new system.

On Wednesday, the committee also discussed a number of other updates they would like to see made to the new system. The committee will have at least one more public meeting before the it disbands at the end of the year and submits its final report to the legislature, members said Wednesday.