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Unemployment claims grow

The number of unemployment claims filed in Pennsylvania in the three weeks since mid-March has swelled to 1.13 million — 28 times as many as in the three weeks before the coronavirus pandemic led to the state’s closure of non-essential businesses, according to state Labor Secretary Jerry Oleksiak, speaking on a teleconference call Monday.

“It’s way higher than anything we’ve seen before,” said Susan Dickinson, director of unemployment compensation benefits policy for the Department of Labor and Industry. “We’re blown out of the water.”

The department has responded by adding staff, introducing new technology and encouraging those seeking benefits to familiarize themselves with the process through the department’s website before applying, and then to apply online, if possible, rather than by phone, to avoid long wait times, according to Oleksiak and Dickinson.

The department has been training employees who previously specialized in workers’ compensation claims, recruiting retirees, fielding offers from former employees wishing to help and bringing in staffers from other agencies, according to Oleksiak.

It has been tasking new those new to the field with answering emails, so they have the opportunity to do the necessary research before responding, while bolstering the call center staff with others who can reply out of their own stores of knowledge, according to Dickinson and Oleksiak.

There are about 600 staffers working now, some from the department’s offices, some from home, Oleksiak said.

Three administrative assistants have been taking calls, he said.

There are plans to add 100 additional intake interviewers.

“We’re using every resource available,” Oleksiak said.

The department’s website, www.uc.pa.gov, is available by smartphone now, not only computer, Dickinson said.

The department is testing the artificial intelligence program “Watson,” which will be able soon to answer frequently asked questions, Oleksiak said.

The department’s computerized operating system is not ideal, but not bad, according to the officials.

At 40 to 50 years old, “it’s antiquated — but fairly solid,” Dickinson said.

The department was planning to update it in the fall, and is working with its vendor to speed that up, Oleksiak said.

One advantage of the proposed upgrade would be the automatic correction of a certain kind of incorrect answer commonly found in applications, according to Dickinson.

If those seeking benefits must use the phone — 888-313-7214 — it’s better to call late in the week, starting Wednesday, because hold times are shorter, Dickinson said.

People seeking benefits need to wait a week before they can open new claims, and their claims need to be renewed every two weeks — intervals that correspond to the paycheck intervals of the workplace, according to Dickinson. Claimants will receive a payment for that initial waiting week.

Because of the volume of claims, the department has fallen behind in mailing out PIN numbers for new claimants, so people might have to wait an additional day or so after they’ve been out of work for two weeks, Dickinson said. But the department will eventually pay everyone what they’re owed, she said.

About half the 1.13 million applicants — 540,000 — have begun receiving benefits so far, Oleksiak said.

Claimants will be getting an extra $600 a week beyond what they’re entitled to from the state between April 4 and July 25, based on the federal stimulus, according to Dickinson.

“We’ll be reaching back to ensure people get that extra money,” she said.

That additional money will likely be entering beneficiaries’ bank accounts a few days later each week than the regular payments, she said.

The department is expecting guidance soon from the federal government on putting into practice the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — or CARES, which will enable the self-employed to collect benefits, Oleksiak said.

“We’re very conscious how frustrated our citizens are,” Oleksiak said. “We will continue to do all we can.”

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