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State must fix unemployment benefits system

Of all the systemic weaknesses that the pandemic has revealed — in the economy, education, and housing and health — the failure of government is a tragedy unto itself.

For the past year, the focus has centered on the failures at the federal level to respond effectively to the pandemic — and more recently, to plan for equitable and rapid vaccinations. But the failures aren’t limited to federal government.

States, including Pennsylvania, have also racked up failures — and possibly none are more galling than the chaos confronting Pennsylvanians trying to get unemployment benefits.

A House hearing last week with the state’s Labor and Industry Department focused on massive problems in unemployment benefits that have yet to be fixed — including infinite busy signals, inaccessible assistance, outdated technology, and delays in decision making that have left thousands of desperate people hanging out to dry.

A year into the pandemic, this is shameful.

In the last two weeks of March 2020, 830,000 Pennsylvanians lost their jobs when the state shut down schools and all but “life-sustaining” businesses.

Already hobbled by reduced staff, Labor and Industry buckled under the weight — and has barely recovered a year later.

Acting Department Secretary Jennifer Berrier recently testified that Labor and Industry has under 500 full-time qualified people, but needs closer to 2,800.

That means lots of misery for people desperate to receive the unemployment compensation for which they are entitled — or to appeal decisions that the department has made denying benefits.

Jammed phone lines make it impossible to get through; complicated documentation requirements and lack of communication stymie people even further.

Even more maddening, a recent Spotlight Pa report revealed that relaxed rules surrounding a separate Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program have saddled people with overpayments or tax liabilities that they are finding impossible to resolve.

The stress, hardship, and misery that these failures has imposed on human lives is unconscionable.

Why is it so hard to find a solution after all this time? Privatizing these functions are not necessarily the answer — a private contractor was responsible for a recent glitch that sent out overpayments — but there must be a path that holds government more accountable for these tragic failures.

The House Labor and Industry Committee conducted a hearing on Wednesday.

But government failure isn’t limited to unemployment.

A recent Inquirer report shed light on another maddening glitch: low income mothers who receive WIC benefits, (Supplemental nutrition for Women, Infants and Children) are required by the Department of Health to travel in person to get their benefits cards reloaded, instead of allowing them to be reloaded virtually, like EBT cards issued for food stamps.

There’s another problem with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Last year, Congress approved pandemic-related increases in food stamp benefits.

Unfortunately, a technicality prevented the neediest families getting the maximum benefits to receive the increase.

was successfully challenged in a suit brought by Community Legal Services, but millions of dollars are still in limbo, unused and unallocated. Meanwhile, people continue to struggle to survive and feed their families.

There must be a reckoning for state government’s contribution to this massive humanitarian failure.

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