Bucks County members of the Republican Caucus are calling for the House Oversight Committee to look into what they call “the failure of the Unemployment Compensation program” during the coronavirus pandemic.
The demand, addressed to House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), was signed by Reps. Frank Farry (R-Langhorne), Wendi Thomas (R-Richboro), Craig Staats (R-Quakertown), Meghan Schroeder (R-Warminster), K.C. Tomlinson (R-Bensalem), and Todd Polinchock (R-Chalfont). It asks Cutler to refer an investigation to the House Oversight Committee, mirroring an earlier letter signed by lawmakers from Lebanon and Montgomery Counties at the end of June.
The Bucks County delegation wrote that the response to the government’s response to an unprecedented rise in unemployment caused by the global pandemic has been inadequate. “Our district offices have dealt with hundreds, if not thousands, of constituents who have applied for unemployment, and many have yet to collect benefits or receive a resolution to filing claims,” write the lawmakers. They allege that the number of people in that position is “staggering” and unacceptable, considering general fund dollars that have been spent to add staff and update systems.
A spokesperson for Cutler said in an email that an investigation “is certainly possible, and we will work quickly to determine if that is the correct course of action.”
Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry secretary Jerry Oleksiak refuted GOP lawmakers’ claims on Monday.
“We have done, I think, an incredible job being accessible and transparent with the legislature,” he said during a press briefing, listing off the recent points of contact.
The department holds regular calls with the chairs of the House and Senate labor committees, meetings with and trainings for caucus members, and officials have testified at hearings. More than 90% of eligible unemployment benefits recipients who filed by May 23 are getting them, according to Oleksiak. He said the department has seen the letter and will issue an official response.
The episode is the latest in a long history of partisan arguments and logistical mishaps that have plagued Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation program. In 2005, the state awarded IBM a $110 million contract to replace its outdated unemployment compensation system with a new one. The company blew the 2010 delivery date, and eventually Pennsylvania sued to try to recoup millions in taxpayer money from a system that never worked.
Then in 2016, the Republican-led senate declined to vote on a bill that would have provided $57.5 million in funding to the state’s unemployment system. That decision led to more than 500 unemployment compensation workers being laid off. As a result, response times suffered. A 2017 Auditor General’s report found that 99.3% of callers to its support lines that January were met with a busy signal. The same report found that the department had failed to keep an adequate record of its finances for years.
While some of this state funding was later restored, many who were laid off never returned.
Amid that backdrop, the Department of Labor and Industry has battled to meet a historic rise in unemployment claims during the pandemic, as the number of people without jobs rose from 4.7% in February, to 15.1% in April, and more than two million filed applications for benefits.