Labor And Industry Still Overwhelmed With Unemployment Claims

On today's program: Labor and Industry Acting Secretary Jennifer Berrier talks about the challenges of distributing federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation; and Kyle Webster from ACTION-Housing explains the city and county’s plan to distribute a second round of federal rental assistance.

Despite new hires, Labor and Industry Department needs more to handle claims

(0:00 — 11:47) 

Since Congress passed another relief package, the state’s Department of Labor and Industry has been trying to distribute additional unemployment aid to Pennsylvanians in need. 

“We have seen a loss in jobs in the leisure and hospitality industry, and also the education and health services industry, but we’ve also seen a super sector gain with trade, transportation and utilities,” says Labor and Industry acting secretary Jennifer Berrier. “We’re still in the midst of this pandemic and, as you know, there is no playbook.”

Gov. Tom Wolf appointed Jennifer Berrier as the acting secretary of the department late last year following the retirement of Secretary Jerry Oleksiak.

“Not only is there no predictive modelling, but we’re kind of left with what the federal government is going to do,” says Berrier. The federal CARES Act extension is going to expire in mid-March, and Berrier says the department will have to contend with decisions made in Congress, along with the establishment of unemployment compensation and potentially changing qualifications.

In late January, the state’s portal for residents applying for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) malfunctioned, creating frustration among unemployed residents. Berrier says federal qualifications shifted, and the department had to quickly change it’s portal to reflect that. 

“I am happy to report that among the PEUC program and the PUA [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] Program, the majority of folks are getting paid under those programs currently.”

Berrier says with the new federal relief package, new claimants can apply until the middle of March and existing claimants will continue to receive PUA or PEUC payments through April. 

However, she says the department is overwhelmed with the number of claims being filed. 

“We are currently, this month, bringing on 120 additional customer service representatives to address our calls and incoming emails and we’re trying to be very strategic about how we respond to make sure we are exacting the best amount of resources and answering claimants as best we can.”

Berrier says despite the new hires, she would like to bring even more employees into the department. 

“At the beginning of the pandemic, when we had a good unemployment rate, we had approximately 760 folks on staff to administer the UC [Unemployment Compensation] program. Currently we have about 1600 folks working with the UC in administering and getting payments out to claimants.”

Pittsburgh and Allegheny County will soon distribute more federal rental assistance
(11:55 — 18:00)

The City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are looking to establish another COVID-19 emergency rental assistance fund

The $36 million fund can apply to rent, utilities, and more for qualifying households. 

Pittsburgh and Allegheny county plan to partner with ACTION-Housing and Dollar Energy Fund to establish this program. 

“This program was created by the stimulus package signed into law in late December, and the money is coming directly from the U.S. Treasury to states and counties and municipalities,” explains Kyle Webster, general counsel for Action Housing. He says the Treasury hasn’t yet issued guidance on use of the funds, but he hopes this will arrive in early March. 

Last year, the state of Pennsylvania only used about a third of money allocated for rental relief. The rest went to the Department of Corrections and balanced the budget, which is why, Webster says, the city and Allegheny County established its own fund from CARES Act money last year. The County distributed $14.5 million for rental assistance in 2020.

“Since that program ended in December, we continue to receive dozens of phone calls and emails a day asking how January rent can be paid, asking how people can apply for the program,” says Webster. 

Webster says everyone who applied for last year’s program will be notified of the new funding. “Even people who qualified and received funding under the previous program, they still have to pay January rent, they still have to pay February rent.”

Residents seeking more information can sign up for updates at covidrentrelief.alleghenycounty.us

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.