HARRISBURG — State lawmakers demanded the Department of Labor and Industry do more to promptly respond to constituents with unresolved jobless claims Wednesday and cast doubt on agency claims that almost all claims have been resolved.
Secretary of Labor and Industry Gerard Oleksiak told lawmakers that 98% of unemployment claims filed by jobless workers have been paid or deemed ineligible, since the state began ordering businesses to close in March in response to coronavirus pandemic.
That leaves about 30,000 Pennsylvanians still waiting for payment or for the department to determine that they aren’t eligible for payment, he said during a hearing before the state House Labor and Industry committee.
Close to 2 million people have applied for unemployment since the pandemic hit, according to the Department of Labor and Industry data.
Under questioning by state Rep. Ryan Mackenzie, R-Lehigh County, Labor and Industry officials conceded that the 98% includes people who’ve received a partial payment but who are still waiting for the agency to provide all of the benefits they think they are owed.
“That is simply unacceptable,” Mackenzie said.
Based on complaints that lawmakers have heard, the number of people fighting to get their full benefit payments means that the 30,000 mentioned by Oleksiak is just a fraction of the number still struggling to get benefits owed them, he said.
It’s certainly not the only complaint they’ve heard, lawmakers said.
State Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair County said he was told by a constituent that he had to dial the unemployment office 300 times before anyone picked up the phone.
“Is 300 redials an acceptable number?” Gregory asked Oleksiak.
“Of course 300 is not acceptable. We’re proud of the work we’ve done but we’re not satisfied,” the said. “We’re not happy that people don’t have the benefits they’re entitled to.”
Oleksiak said that he appreciates the efforts legislators and their staff members have been making to help people get answers about unresolved claims.
“It’s an all hands on deck situation,” he said.
State Rep. Dan Miller, D-Allegheny County, said lawmakers have been frustrated by how difficult it has been for them to get answers when approached by constituents who’ve sought assistance in trying to get responses from the Department of Labor and Industry.
“You say it’s all hands on deck, but our hands have been tied,” he said.
Gregory said that a member of his staff had asked the Department of Labor and Industry about a constituent’s case on July 8 and still hadn’t received a response from the agency.
Miller noted that in June a pair of lawmakers announced plans for legislation that would allow legislative staff greater access to information in the unemployment compensation system to more quickly provide answers to constituents.
That legislation was announced by state Rep. Doyle Heffley, R- Carbon County and state Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill County, who said it was inspired by the fact that their district offices are being inundated with inquiries about constituents’ unemployment claims.
Oleksiak said that the proposal is problematic because federal privacy rules would bar the state from granting legislative access to the unemployment compensation system.
The proposal announced by Hefffley and Knowles has not yet been formally introduced.