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Monday, October 15, 2012

Unemployment Compensation Nightmare in the State of Pennsylvania

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Oct 10, 2012
By Thom Nickels

When it comes to unemployment compensation, the state of Pennsylvania is in a state of emergency.

This will come as no surprise to the 524,547 people on the state’s unemployment rolls. A system that for years was considered already highly flawed but nominally workable has now crashed into a brick wall.

Anyone who loses their job at this time had better buckle their seatbelt because they will not believe how the "reformed" unemployment compensation process now works in Pennsylvania.

Let’s take a look at the past for some contrast.

Years ago, Philadelphia had unemployment compensation service centers where one could go for help in processing a claim. In the 1970s one could expect to stand in line for hours at these centers but at least one got to talk to a live human being at the end of the ordeal. Specific problems related to individual payments were handled by social workers in cubicles, a guarantee that nobody left with unanswered questions. These were bustling service centers that would shut down for one hour during lunch, causing the unemployed to place their yellow UC cards on the floor to save their place in line when lunch was over.

Today, the UC service centers, at least in Philadelphia, have been abolished, thanks to a cost cutting move by Governor Corbett this summer when his administration ordered the last remaining Philadelphia Center on Grant Avenue closed.

The Corbett administration blamed the closure on the slashing of a 30 million federal grant to the state, although nobody forced the governor to make up part of that federal loss by closing the center on Grant Avenue, where at least 100 people were laid off. Governor Corbett also eliminated all but two toll-free phone lines for claimants to use when processing unemployment claims.

The result of all this has been an unmitigated disaster. In the entire state of Pennsylvania there are less than 400 people to handle the questions, comments and "paperwork" of the 524,547 unemployed.

Why Governor Corbett chose only to close the Philadelphia office, and not the eight other unemployment compensation service centers in the state, has been chalked up to the state’s not being able to afford to renew the lease on the building.

Trust me, there isn’t a third grader anywhere in the city who, upon hearing this news, would not be able to suggest that if you cannot afford to renew a lease, you might consider finding a cheaper building rather than folding up your tent and leaving town.

But Governor Corbett pulled the UC center out of town, almost as if he was trying to sock it to the city for its decades-old Democratic majority and one-party rule.

For the record, let me say that I am all for breaking up Philadelphia’s one-party rule, but this is no way to go about it.

Critics of the governor’s move do not buy the lease renewal reason for one minute. If anything, why not close service centers in Allentown or Lancaster? It would be obvious to anyone, even to that third grader, that Philadelphia is where most unemployed people live.

What all this means is that if you were to lose your job tomorrow, you’d apply for Pennsylvania unemployment online and fill out an application. You would also register for something called Career Link, which would put you in a Want Ad pool for people looking for work.

Shortly after submitting your application you would receive notice of your approval for 26 weeks of unemployment. After that would come all the appropriate paperwork, including a UC debit card so you could access your UC payments. Traditionally, Pennsylvania has always been slower than most states in sending people their first UC payments, but at least before the Corbett cuts, people could find out fairly quickly what the holdup was.

That is no longer true.

With the absence of a UC service center and less staff to deal with problems, there are Philadelphians who have filed for UC benefits in mid-August who have still not received a single payment. The two toll-free 800 numbers—there used to be at least twice as many contact numbers—are chronically busy. We’re not talking twenty minutes of busy signals but more like five hours worth. No matter when you call, you will hear the busy beep. The lack of a voicemail also prevents you from leaving a message, unless you opt to skip orthodox procedure and call another Harrisburg Department, the Department of Labor and Industry, Office of Equal Opportunity, at 717-787-1182. A coordinator will answer and listen to your question and then switch you over to a live voicemail where you can leave a message.

The problem is that the number they refer you to is the same telephone number that’s always busy. If you’re lucky, the Dept. of Labor and Industry clerk may take your message, at which point you can expect a call back, but hours or days later.

I recently lost a small part-time job, and applied for benefits and was accepted for a 26 week run. Since the beginning of August I have been registering my biweekly claim but I have yet to see a single payment. When somebody from Harrisburg managed to return my call, he was as befuddled as Mary Poppins after a fall off her bicycle. "I don’t know why you’re not getting your payments," he said, ‘It seems there could be a problem with another part time job you had in 2008."

"What?" I asked. "2008?"

"I can’t be sure," he said. "Was there an overpayment then? I can’t verify this so we will have to check. I have no solid facts to tell you. You registered with Career Link, right? I’ll get back to you with the facts."

That was two weeks ago.

Naturally my only recourse was to call the 717 number and leave messages so that I could get the ball rolling. During one call the clerk confessed that the new system was in total disarray. "It is awful, yes," she said, " our hands are tied—we don’t know how to change this."

Well, how about telling the governor to put the additional phone lines back, and to find a new building for that UC service center?