Aging Pa. unemployment system overwhelmed by COVID-19 crush of claims

PITTSBURGH — Next week marks two months since nonessential business were ordered to shut their doors. More than 1.7 million Pennsylvanians have applied for unemployment since March 15. Many people say they got emails about the unemployment system not having a record of them while other people say they called hundreds of times. Many reported nothing but issues after filing that initial claim.

"I haven't received a card or no money yet and it's impossible to get through because they are so busy," said Samantha Kidd of Butler.

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Kidd says it’s been tough since she and her fiance were laid off, and the stress is growing since they had their fourth child just two weeks ago. Kidd is among the 1.7 million people seeking help from the unemployment compensation system.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said in an April 24 news conference that the system is overwhelmed, and they’re trying to boost staffing levels. “Our unemployment compensation wasn’t built for this volume and it’s frustrating many people," he said.

But this isn’t the first time that the department has been criticized. In 2017, the Pennyslvania auditor general released an audit highlighting issues including long wait calls and said the agency was in “dire need of a new computer-based benefits delivery system.”

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The audit cited that the state poured millions of dollars into the outdated unemployment system more than a decade ago when IBM was awarded an upgrade contract. The state spent $170 million, but the work was never finished.

Wolf was asked about this on April 17 and stated they “agreed with the auditor general and sued the vendor.”

Senate Labor and Industry Committee Chair Camera Bartolotta said the “the computer system is 50 years old" and the unemployment comp system which is ludicrous.”

Bartolotta said lawmakers invested more than $1 billion dollars from 2017 to now into a system upgrade which rolls out in October.

PA CORONAVIRUS MAP: See the number of cases in each county, zip code

“It’s a bottleneck. It’s a backlog. It’s frustrating and it’s desperate times for so many of those people in Pennsylvania and I am beside myself, wishing that we could do something so much more quickly,” Bartolotta said.

But the 2017 contract with the new company, Geographic Solutions, said the new site was supposed to “Go Live” by April 30, 2018. Bartolotta said that was an aggressive deadline for a complex system.

Geographic Solutions President Paul Toomey said the contract was an initial estimate based on similar systems in other states, but after analyzing system they found “over a thousand programming changes required.” Toomey added there was no additional cost increase and the project remained on budget.

Our initial estimate for the schedule of the Pennsylvania Unemployment Benefits Modernization project was based on our experience in standing up similar systems for states such as Louisiana and Tennessee. Our contract called for us to analyze the current unemployment system, in Pennsylvania in partnership with Commonwealth staff, and develop a final schedule and Go Live date. The analysis revealed that the scope was large and complex and that there were over a thousand programming changes required. As a result, the project schedule was subsequently modified, in coordination with the Commonwealth, to reflect the level of customization required. Despite the additional effort required there was no corresponding increase in the cost for the Commonwealth in Pennsylvania. The project has remained on budget.

Our priority is to implement a quality system that is robust and will pay unemployment benefits to claimants in Pennsylvania accurately and on time.

—  Paul Toomey President Geographic Solutions, Inc.

While the new site will offer more self-services, it doesn’t deal with unanswered questions and busy signals.

“There is definitely a large backlog of emails,” said Susan Dickinson, police director for Labor & Industry Unemployment Compensation Benefits.

Dickinson said besides the email backlog, they’re seeing about 22,000 weekly calls. She says people will get back payments even those who have yet to file.

But that's small consolation for people who still have to pay their bills.

“There is no way to get hold of anybody and that’s what’s so frustrating because I don’t have any money and I don’t know when I will be getting it,” Kidd said.

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