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Pennsylvania is aiming to improve call staffing for Unemployment, reduce case backlog

 People hold up purple signs as part of a protest.
Ashton Jones
90.5 WESA

Following years of complaints about understaffing and unanswered phone calls, Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor and Industry says it is investing in more employees and working to eliminate a backlog of pandemic-era claims.

The agency has hired more than 200 additional interviewers to answer calls, it announced last month. It is also focused on “eliminating” its backlog as its “top priority,” said the agency’s Acting Secretary, Nancy Walker.

Between March 2020 and November 2021 the department received 3.7 million regular Unemployment Compensation claims and 3.4 million Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims. (PUA was a special program launched during the pandemic to aid workers who would not have had access to traditional Unemployment, such as workers who were self-employed or gig workers.) As of the end of April, the backlog of unresolved pandemic claims was more than 12,800. That’s down from several hundred thousand at their peak.

It is also working to resolve the “unprecedented” reports of fraud from this time; as of the end of April, more than 25,000 outstanding fraud reports remained, according to the agency.

The department struggled to handle a wave of both legitimate and fraudulent Unemployment claims early in the pandemic and the resulting backlog. Out-of-work Pennsylvanians regularly reported not being able to get through to anyone at the agency, despite hundreds of phone calls.

Gov. Josh Shapiro, who took office in January, acknowledged the problems in his first budget address to legislators, in March, and pledged to make improvements.

“When a worker loses their job, it’s devastating,” he said. “And in the past, this Commonwealth hasn’t always done right by them. Because when they needed us most, our Unemployment Compensation system failed them.”

The agency’s goal is to be answering phones in real time or in under ten minutes; it is now able to respond to emails in less than 24 hours, said Maria Macus, deputy secretary for Unemployment Compensation programs at the Department of Labor and Industry.

Several advocates said they are seeing improved service for people who are out of work and need assistance getting benefits.

“The sort of delays and frustrations that we were dealing with before really have been very much reduced,” in recent months, said Sharon Dietrich, litigation director at Community Legal Services.

Advocates also said they were heartened to see the state extend in-person assistance to the out-of-work at local Career Link offices statewide.

“That's a big step forward,” said Barney Oursler, who leads the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, an advocacy group.

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Steve Catanese, who heads the Service Employees International Union Local 668, which represents staffers at the department, said the union is pleased to see additional workers being hired.

“Such aggressive hiring is important for both claimants and the workforce that serves the public. We're also looking forward to working with the administration to continue to improve access to trained staff in public-facing locations,” he said.

The governor's budget proposal asks the legislature to authorize additional funds to continue to provide improvements, Labor and Industry officials said.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.