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Lawmakers question Labor Secretary over virus

The state House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday interrogated the acting secretary of the Department of Labor on jobs lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, the troubles unemployment compensation claimants have had getting issues resolved; and how the department can erase its backlog of unresolved cases.

Between March and November of last year, the state has lost about 500,000 jobs, according to Jennifer Berrier, the acting secretary.

There were 6.1 million Pennsylvania residents in jobs in March, and that number fell by 1.12 million by May, then rose again, leveling off at 5.6 million in November, Berrier said, under questioning by state Rep. James Struzzi, R-Indiana.

Are the losses permanent? Struzzi asked.

“I don’t know whether they’re coming back,” Berrier said.

Can you quantify the impact on the state’s economy? Struzzi asked.

No, Berrier said.

“There’s no playbook,” she stated. “There’s no predictive modeling in place for this situation.”

When it came time for state Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-Allegheny, to question Berrier, she held her cellphone up to the microphone. There was a busy signal.

That has been the response all morning when she dialed the same number used by constituents who have an issue with unemployment compensation claims, Mihalek said.

“This is the No. 1 frustration that we hear every single day in our legislative offices,” she said.

Before the pandemic, people would call and get issues resolved “on the spot,” according to Mihalek. Now her constituents spend days listening, unable to get through, she said.

And when they use email instead, as the department has recommended, it takes two to nine weeks to get a response, Mihalek said.

“Not for a check, but just for a response,” she said. “And you better hope you don’t have a follow-up question, because it will be another two to nine weeks.”

She understands the frustration, Berrier said. “That is not acceptable to us,” she said.

It takes an average of 92 days to adjudicate a case, said state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, citing department statistics.

“No one should have to wait three months,” Berrier acknowledged.

Yet, while the department has a plan to shrink the backlog of cases that cause such delays for constituents, “there’s no silver bullet,” Berrier said.

The department needs 50 to 80 more unemployment compensation examiners to supplement the 255 now working cases and it won’t be easy to get them, because the job is difficult, and expertise needs to be acquired through experience, she said.

The department is trying to entice its veteran intake workers to try, she said.

Shrinking the backlog needs to be done “strategically,” so that when it’s gone, the department doesn’t need to lay off a group of people, Berrier said.

The current staff, working overtime, including on weekends, is handling 6,000 to 7,000 adjudications per week, and the goal is to get that to 10,000 per week, according to Berrier.

A legislative proposal that would streamline the unemployment claims process by eliminating issues that now confuse claimants and employers would help, Berrier said.

It would enable examiners to deal with “substantive questions, not process questions,” she said. “It would free up significant staff time,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

By the numbers:

Since the pandemic began, the department:

* Has handled 2.43 million initial claims for regular unemployment.

* Paid 1.18 of those claims, totaling $7.1 billion.

* Found 568,000 of those claims to be ineligible for payment.

* Dropped 251,000 of those claims because the claimant discontinued the claim.

* Is still working on 44,000 pending claims.

* Has handled 2.5 million initial applications for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for the self-employed.

* Paid 1.22 million of those claims, totaling $8 billion.

* Identified 787,000 of those claims as definitely or possibly fraudulent.

* Dropped 394,000 of those claims because the Social Security administration didn’t authenticate the claimant.

* Is still working on about 39,000 claims (based on calculations made on the prior PUA numbers).

* Paid $18.2 billion under the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program (a supplemental $600 a week for those already receiving unemployment).

* Paid $1.7 billion under the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program (a federal extension of UC benefits).

* Paid $433 million under the Pennsylvania Extended Benefits program.

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