Pennsylvania unemployment system still problematic for residents

PITTSBURGH — Problems continue with Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation system as many people waiting for benefits struggle financially heading into the holidays. Several people contacted 11 Investigates telling us the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry is ruining their Christmas because they can’t get the money they’re owed.

“My son has been holding us up. I think of the people who don’t have a safety net,” said Donna DeMarco, who filed for unemployment in October but has yet to see a penny.

Logging into the state’s unemployment compensation system is a daily frustration for Donna DeMarco and her daughter Darby Testa of Pittsburgh’s southside. Both ended up unemployed this fall and have struggled with Pennsylvania’s system ever since.

“I’m a single mom trying to raise my child with no income since Sept. 15,” Darby said.

Backlog problems persist

In June, the state launched a $35-million upgrade to its computer system, which was supposed to help improve a massive backlog in claims. The state says wait times have “drastically improved,” with “many eligible claimants getting benefits within a few weeks of filing their claim.”

But over the past month, more than two dozen people have contacted 11 Investigates telling us they are still having issues.

Evan of Ross Township emailed, saying, “I opened my claim in August. It’s now December, and I have still received no compensation.”

Adam of Connellsville told us, “I’ve been trying to log into the system for 3 weeks to file an initial claim. PA unemployment has personally ruined Christmas for me.”

And John of South Fayette said, “PA unemployment is ruining my life and giving me the worst holiday for my family. I’m losing everything week by week.”

Ticket numbers climbing

When applicants have a problem and contact the state, they are issued a ticket number and told someone will contact them. It took 8 weeks for Donna to finally get a call, and that left her even more frustrated.

“They called and said there’s no update. We’re still processing your claim,” Donna told 11 Investigates. “I said should I put in another ticket? They said that will just make it more backlogged.”

Now she’s in limbo again, continuing to wait.

The state declined to do an interview, but in an email to 11 Investigates, Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry press secretary Alex Peterson blamed delays on eligibility issues:

“Those who do not have eligibility issues receive payments as soon as they file – there is no delay. When there are questions to resolve about a claimants’ eligibility, the wait time is typically longer. Even without a backlog, we advise the public it could take 6-8 weeks to resolve any eligibility issue(s). The length of the wait can vary, depending on individual issues that arise.”

It took the state three months to clear up a severance issue on Darby’s account. The Department of Labor finally sent her an email Dec. 3, saying, “The payments were released ... and she should expect to receive them in 2 to 3 days.”

Now, three weeks later, she has yet to receive any of the money. She is owed more than $7,579 and had to get a new ticket number, which is around 520,000. For perspective, the state’s unemployment website reported it was processing ticket numbers around 436,000 on Thursday.

Here’s how the state explained the ticketing-number process in an email to 11 Investigates:

“The number shown as being currently served on our website is the lowest ticket number completed that day; however, staff could actively be working higher ticket numbers that have not yet been completed. The time it takes to resolve an inquiry depends on the circumstances of the case. Duplicate tickets belonging to a single claimant also affect wait times.”

They offered this advice for claimants experiencing a wait:

  • Check for a confirmation email about your filed claim, either via email or mail, depending on what you chose
  • Make sure your most recent contact information is on file:
  • Name
  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Email
  • If you recently moved or changed your number or email, update your profile
  • If UC staff reach out to you, please respond promptly

Slimmed down Christmas

Donna and Darby have done all of those things and say the problem is on the state’s end. They are especially frustrated by how difficult the state makes it to contact them.

“Emails unanswered, there’s no chat, no text, phone calls — you wait forever,” Donna said.

She and her daughter want the state to do more to fix the system they say is broken.

“I paid into the system for 44 years and now that I need it, they’re not there for me,” Donna said. “I’m constantly anxious, there’s no money coming in. All my savings are gone, the little bit of savings, they’re all gone. Christmas is very slim this year.”

“There’s real people who can’t get their needs met. So, help. Help. Please,” Darby pleaded.

Last week, the Department of Labor told 11 Investigates they had 69,000 tickets pending staff action but would not provide us an update Thursday.

If you are among those expecting an unemployment check over the holidays, the state says to expect a delay of 2 to 3 days over the next week or so.

Click here to check the schedule for payment delays.