Unemployed Philadelphians call on state to ‘release the funds’

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — “I feel like the system is failing us,” said laid-off restaurant worker Mike Walker, who hasn’t received an unemployment check since November.

He’s one of more than 300,000 Pennsylvanians who are waiting on a determination from the unemployment office.

The Philadelphia Unemployment Project and the Restaurant Opportunities Center once again protested in front of Gov. Tom Wolf’s Center City offices on Thursday, saying it is taking the state way too long to pay unemployment benefits.

John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, said the system is in need of an urgent overhaul.

“We have people calling us for well over a year that cannot get their unemployment benefits,” he said. Others received payments but the money stopped without explanation, and they spent hours straightening it out with customer service.

“They have no plan how to fix this problem. It’s going to take six months to get through that backlog,” Dodds said. “At this point, if you can’t determine eligibility in 21 days, which is what the labor department expects states to do, you release the funds.”

Consumer advocate and Philadelphia Unemployment Project board member Lance Haver said working people should be a priority, not an afterthought.

“The government had no problem bailing out the airlines. The cruise lines got their money. Now, hundreds of thousands of workers have no income, and all of a sudden the government says,  ‘Well, we can’t give you that money,’ ” he said.

In an email, a spokesperson from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (L&I) said it soon plans to hire 500 to 1,000 additional customer service representatives, promising a “faster resolution time for issues and increased preparation for the transition from a 40-year-old mainframe system to an easier-to-use modern computer system in June.”

Haver argued they should have done that a year ago.

“Does it really come as a surprise to anyone that after COVID the unemployment rate would go up?” he asked.

L&I said it has consistently tried to hire more staff since the start of the pandemic, but it has struggled to find “interested, qualified candidates.” At the end of the 2008 recession, L&I had 310 people able to examine claims. Now, just 226.

“While this staffing level was appropriate for the record-low unemployment rate that immediately preceded the pandemic, the abrupt increase in claims has led to a backlog of claims awaiting determinations,” read the email, “which has caused a circular problem of adding stress to our examiners and leading to further difficulties attracting and retaining staff.”

The labor department is processing more claims than ever before while also dealing with an unprecedented level of fraud. According to L&I, the most unemployment paid out in a single year prior to 2020 was $4.74 billion in 2009. Between March 2020 and March 2021, L&I paid $39.78 billion in unemployment.

The bottom line, Dodds said, is hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers are still going months without any income.

“Prior to the pandemic, only 77 percent of determinations were written in under three weeks,” the email continued. “This is in part due to the complexity of some cases. To have every claim determined in under three weeks during record-high unemployment claims is unrealistic and would foster an environment that would allow fraud to flourish and taxpayer money to be used irresponsibly.”

Featured Image Photo Credit: Hadas Kuznits/KYW Newsradio