Since March 15, Pennsylvania has paid out more than $24 billion in unemployment benefits, according to the state's Department of Labor and Industry. But some central Pennsylvania residents, many of whom were laid off because of coronavirus shutdowns, are eligible for unemployment compensation aren't getting it.
At home in State College with two kids, Skyler Castillo estimates she spends two hours a day calling Pennsylvania’s Office of Unemployment Compensation. But the line is always busy.
“I cannot get through to anybody," Castillo said. "I spend hours just redialing through the phone and refreshing through the chat, and I can’t get through to anybody.”
Castillo begins calling the unemployment office at 8 a.m. every weekday, but to no avail. She wonders what more she can realistically do.
“Multiple times a day, I’ll just randomly try and it’s always busy," Castillo said. "Somebody told me that it took over 400 phone calls in one day to finally get through, but I just genuinely don’t have the time for that.”
Castillo first filed for unemployment compensation on May 3 when she was laid off from her job. It worked at first, but then the money stopped coming June 8.
She had covered one shift for a coworker but was told it wouldn’t affect her unemployment. Castillo reported the issue to the Office of Unemployment Compensation soon after but has not heard back.
Castillo’s husband is still working and they’re getting by. But Castillo is intent on figuring out how to get her unemployment.
“I guess I just want my money," Castillo said. "I got a family to feed so it’s been really disappointing to not be able to have any source of income at all.”
State Representative Rich Irvin said his office has received an unprecedented number of unemployment compensation complaints. Irvin represents Pennsylvania’s 81st Legislative District, which covers all of Huntingdon County and parts of Mifflin and Centre Counties. He said his office has helped more than 300 constituents navigate the department of labor’s website to get their unemployment claims moving.
“They’ll call our office and we can just sort of walk them through it and they walk away with 'Well, I’ve got my claim filed for X number of dollars,'" Irvin said. "That’s very satisfying, I think, for myself and my office staff.”
Irvin says the unemployment claim system needs to be updated. In 2017 the state auditor general warned the system was built around 1970s technology and couldn’t deal with an increase in claims.
Irvin says money that was set aside to upgrade the computer system has instead gone toward increased staffing and overtime. Since March 15, the unemployment compensation service center has more than doubled its workforce, but Irvin points to the hundreds who’ve come to him to say the system still isn’t working.
“My biggest criticism of labor and industry is the lack of effective communication to the people that are using the system,” Irvin said.
In the meantime, Irvin encourages citizens in his legislative district to contact his office for help getting unemployment compensation.
Between March 15 and June 6, 2.5 million Pennsylvanians filed for unemployment benefits. As of July 8, 90% have received payments. That’s according to the Secretary of the Department of Labor and Industry, Jerry Oleksiak.
Oleksiak said during a tele-townhall last week that his department is doing what it can to filter through the unresolved claims.
“Those are claims that may have some issues that we are looking at, determining if they are indeed eligible and what questions there may be that we can help claimants with,” Oleksiak said.
The Department of Labor and Industry says it has received more than half a million emails and 200,000 phone calls. Susan Dickinson, the state director of unemployment compensation benefits policy, says instead of calling or emailing, the live chat is perhaps the best way to get quick unemployment claim assistance.