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State labor department says it is working to increase capacity as unemployment filings balloon
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State labor department says it is working to increase capacity as unemployment filings balloon

Pa Department of Labor and Industry

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry acknowledged Thursday that laid-off workers have been having a difficult time getting through to the state’s hotline for unemployment claims, as business shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic continue.

The situation should improve as more Labor and Industry employees get set up to work from home, the agency said, but Gov. Tom Wolf’s order Wednesday to mandate shutdowns of all non-life-sustaining business in the state will likely spike the agency’s workload even higher.

During a conference call with reporters on Thursday, department officials also said they have been told by the federal Department of Labor to stop giving out the number of jobless claims being filed because the information is a “leading economic indicator.”

On Wednesday, the department said that it had processed 121,000 claims since issuing guidance on Monday for unemployment insurance related to the pandemic. In comparison, federal data shows that Pennsylvania processed 12,000 claims in the entire first week of March.

Federal data also shows just under 138,000 people receiving unemployment insurance compensation in Pennsylvania at the end of February, meaning that the state likely doubled its unemployment rolls in 48 hours between Monday and Wednesday.

“We were staffed appropriately for the unemployment levels that were current. We were not staffed for the influx of claims we have now,” said Bill Trusky, deputy secretary of unemployment compensation programs.

The department typically has between 90 and 130 caseworkers taking claims, Trusky said, but is currently operating with about half that given that many Labor and Industry offices are transitioning to work-from-home setups due to the pandemic.

Once those employees come back online, along with hiring some temporary employees, the agency should be able to work much faster, Trusky said.

In the meantime, laid-off workers are encouraged to file online, which allows for much faster processing of most unemployment claims. About 80% of filings have no unusual reports and can sail through the system, according to Susan Dickinson, director of unemployment compensation benefits policy.

The department announced on Monday that the state would ease unemployment filing rules; the standard “wait week” has been suspended, allowing claimants to get paid for their first week off the job, and work search requirements are also being waived.

Trusky also said Thursday he understands that additional money from the federal unemployment trust fund is forthcoming to help state accounts deal with the higher volume of payouts that will likely be sustained until the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

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