Traditionally, Pennsylvania’s Unemployment Compensation (UC) system was simple and effective. An unemployed worker went to an “unemployment office,” filed a claim, and got about the business of finding a new job. Along with declining administrative funding, that system started to erode at the beginning of this century. First, the local offices were replaced by centralized UC Service Centers, requiring unemployed workers to try to be able to get through a phone system that was often jammed for days or longer. Then, the UC Service Centers in Philadelphia and Allentown were closed, meaning that urban workers’ claims were seldom adjudicated by people familiar with their lives. However, the deficiencies of the UC system have gotten immeasurably worse since March 2020.
- The pandemic volume of claims, new programs and other operational challenges strained the system to its limits and past. Many of the system’s old reliable values, including access, timeliness, and due process, have been badly eroded, with no apparent plans to restore them being discussed publicly by the PA Department of Labor & Industry (DLI).
- Benefits Modernization was implemented in June 2021, presenting separate formidable barriers to UC recipiency. In many respects, the “BenMod” software (known as “Geographic Solutions Unemployment System,” or “GUS”) simply does not work. It also screens out UC claimants who lack necessary technology or know-how to use it. Because the product is described as a “Commercial Off-the-Shelf” system, Geographic Solutions, Inc. (GSI), the state’s contractor, seems loathe to make needed changes.
- Fraud became DLI’s biggest concern. Fraud prevention led to the system-wide adoption of identity verification through ID.me, more technology that slammed the door on a significant percentage of claimants.
Pennsylvania’s unemployed workers have paid and continue to pay a staggering cost.
- Technology barriers presented by GUS and ID.me’s software prevent unemployed people who are eligible for UC benefits from getting them. A person who lacks technology or ability to use it faces an uphill battle to get benefits, because of the limited options for getting past the layers of barriers.
- Communications between unemployed workers and DLI are ever more unavailable or ineffective, even as they are more needed. Claimants continue to dial their phones all day hoping against hope that DLI will answer their call or send messages that are not answered for months.
- Timeliness is a thing of the past, despite being one of the central features of the original design of the UC program during the Great Depression. DLI Secretary Berrier recently testified in a legislative hearing that fraud report reviews could take several months and determining eligibility for unemployment typically takes six to eight weeks.
- Equity is undermined, when many staff display a lack of cultural competency or understanding of persons of color or urban claimants. This issue was experienced firsthand by PUA applicants who established eligibility under the federal rules but whose work history was different than the more traditional UC claimant.
These issues not only reflect policy and operations failures; they also violate legal requirements that include due process and payment of benefits “when due.” The challenge is to identify strategies that will most effectively rectify these daunting systemic problems.
This paper recommends the following solutions:
- Open Hiring to All Parts of the State, Especially Philadelphia and Other Urban Areas
- Fix BenMod Flaws
- Provide More Effective Communications
- Reform Identity Verification
- Make A Plan to Work Towards Timeliness Compliance
- Design Data Collection and Provide Transparency
- Implement Mass Waivers of Non-Fraud Overpayments in Federal Programs