Pa. unemployment compensation hotline overwhelmed with callers

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Unemployment has skyrocketed in Pennsylvania, with nearly 800,000 people filing claims since mid-March. They’re part of a larger number of more than 6.6 million Americans who applied for unemployment benefits last week.

But the state’s unemployment system seems to be seizing up from the record number of people attempting to file claims. Try calling the Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Service Center, and most likely, you’ll hear a busy signal.

Over the past few weeks, traffic on the Philadelphia Unemployment Project’s website and Facebook page has multiplied like never before — far and away the most volume in a short period of time. 

PUP Director John Dodds said many people are filing for the first time, trying to get a handle on this unprecedented situation.

“A lot of people don’t know what’s going on and they’ve never been in this situation before, and unfortunately, the state is not picking up the phone,” he said. “Its phones are busy day after day after day. Someone called the governor’s office and they told him to call us, which I find kind of incredible.”

Dodds is advising gig workers and those who are self-employed to hold off on applying for unemployment compensation until guidelines come down from Washington. Once things settle down and the checks go out in the mail, he believes people will like what they see.

“An additional $600 a week is available, which will last until July 31, on top of the regular state unemployment benefits. The other thing that’s important is self-employed people, gig workers who do a 1099 will get benefits,” he added. “They will also get the $600 on top of that,” along with an additional 13 weeks of benefits.

“We are really happy about that.”

Dodds, however, has little sympathy for bureaucrats.

“The problem is the state wasn’t answering the phone even before the pandemic struck — 3.5% unemployment rate, people on the phone couldn’t get through to the unemployment service, so they clearly can’t get through to it now,” he said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry has been understaffed for nearly five years. Officials say they will add 100 new staffers to the workforce, but Dodds isn’t holding his breath. 

“The Department of Labor is providing guidelines to the states on how to implement these benefits,” he added, “so with the way the state is overloaded, I think it’s better to wait a little while.”

Some industries may not recover

David Fiorenza, assistant professor of economics at Villanova University, said dealing with these staggering unemployment numbers is like a moving target.

“Every day there's discussions about, do we inject more money into things like infrastructure? You can inject more money into infrastructure, but if you're not allowed to do the projects right now, and you can't do them for at least a month or so, that's not going to stimulate the economy,” he said.

Fiorenza said many of the jobs that have been lost could be gone permanently in one key sector of the economy.

“In the restaurant industry, hospitality and tourism — it could be half,” he estimated.

In his lifetime, Fiorenza hasn’t seen unemployment reach this level of severity. 

“I've seen 10% unemployment, and that was during the financial crisis of 2008-09. Even the recession going back to 1979 thru 1978 did not see high unemployment like this,” he recalled. “We saw the opposite. We saw high interest rates and high inflation.”

As for 2020’s jobless claims, Fiorenza said it will level off — at some point.

“I am seeing that various federal reserve banks are giving different figures,” he continued, “and looking at today's figures, the St. Louis Federal Reserve may not be far off from saying that we could have 30% unemployment when this is all said and done.”


KYW Newsradio’s Paul Kurtz and Matt Leon contributed to this report.