Constituents turn to Pennsylvania lawmakers for help getting unemployment benefits

PITTSBURGH — The constituent issue most Pennsylvania state representatives have been dealing with in 2021 is helping people get their unemployment benefits.

“People deserve the money that they’re owed,” said state Rep. Jessica Benham, D-Allegheny County. “I’m incredibly frustrated. People have bills to pay.”

By last count, Benham’s office has tried to help nearly 900 constituents deal with unemployment issues in just the last year alone.

“People feel like they have an incredibly difficult time getting a hold of anybody at our state’s labor and industry,” Benham told 11 Investigates.

>> RELATED STORY: Pennsylvania unemployment system still problematic for residents

That includes people like Donna DeMarco and her daughter Darby Testa, who both filed for unemployment this fall after losing their jobs due to the pandemic. They are among the many constituents Benham has tried to help, but even her staff had trouble getting answers.

“You used to be able to call (the Pennsylvania Department of) Labor & Industry and have a conversation with someone, but we’re no longer able to do that. We’re no longer even able to communicate with email,” Benham said. “They’ve created a system where we upload the constituent’s info to a database and hear a response back in two to three weeks; and sometimes the answers we get back aren’t even helpful.”

Benham’s office made a little progress for DeMarco and Testa, but months later, they are still waiting for benefits.

Continuing Complaints

One look at the Department of Labor & Industry’s Facebook page shows a seemingly neverending series of complaints.

State representative Anita Kulik’s office has also stepped in to help hundreds of constituents.

“Far and away the biggest issue we have ever dealt with,” said Kulik, D-Allegheny County. “You have people calling saying, ‘I don’t have any money. I can’t get my unemployment money. I don’t have money for food. I don’t have money for utilities.’ It’s heartbreaking.”

A $35 million upgrade to the system in June was supposed to help, but problems persist and have been complicated by a confusing new identification verification system called ID.me.

“Look, it should be as easy as shopping on Amazon, to be honest. If people can do that, why can’t they go in and verify their ID and get an answer back?,” Kulik asked.

Benham said she thinks this is a failure of the system, and it’s time for the state to fix it.

“Absolutely a failure of the system,” she said. “In many cases, there are people who paid into the system their entire lifetime expecting it would be there for them if they needed it, and it’s time that it was.”

As of Monday, the state told 11 Investigates there is a backlog of 72,000 claims requiring staff attention.

Both Benham and Kulik say they think part of the problem is that many state employees are still working remotely from home and some lack proper training.

They’d like to see state workers come back to the office to make more progress in digging out of the backlog in person.