Pennsylvania’s UC System No Longer Can Be Relied Upon to Serve Unemployed Workers.
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. As a result of declining administrative funding, that system started to erode at the beginning of this century. However, the deficiencies and inequities of the UC system have gotten immeasurably worse since the pandemic began in March 2020.
- The pandemic brought an unprecedented volume of claims, new programs and other operational challenges that strained the system to its limits and beyond. Many of the system’s old reliable values, including access, timeliness, and due process, were badly eroded, with no known comprehensive plans to restore them by the PA Department of Labor & Industry (DLI).
- Benefits Modernization (BenMod) was implemented in June 2021 and presented separate formidable barriers to UC recipiency. The “BenMod” software (known within DLI as “Geographic Solutions Unemployment System,” or “GUS”) screens out UC claimants who lack the necessary technology or know-how to use it, while also not effectively serving DLI’s management needs. Because the product is described as a “Commercial Off-the-Shelf” system, Geographic Solutions, Inc. (GSI), the state’s software contractor, has made needed changes many months later, if at all.
- Fraud became DLI’s primary concern. Fraud prevention led to the system-wide adoption of identity verification through Id.me, yet another technological hurdle that has the effect of slamming the door on a significant percentage of claimants.
Pennsylvania’s unemployed workers continue to pay a staggering cost for these changes to the UC system. Despite more than a year passing since BedMod was implemented and the special pandemic programs ended, UC claimants continue to suffer because of administrative failures, despite unemployment rates being at historic lows.
- Technology barriers presented by GSI’s software and ID.me’s digital identity verification prevent unemployed people who are eligible for UC benefits from getting them. A person who lacks the technology or ability to use this software faces an uphill battle to get benefits. Too many, frustrated by these barriers, abandon applications.
- Communications between unemployed workers and DLI remain unavailable or ineffective. Claimants continue to dial their phones all day hoping against hope that DLI will answer their call. Email messages are not answered for months.
- Prompt payments are a thing of the past, despite timeliness requirements being one of the central features of the original design of the UC program during the Great Depression. Eligible claimants waiting months for adjudication of their claims may be the biggest cause of unnecessary suffering among the unemployed.
- Inadequate staffing contributes to most of the ongoing problems, including adjudication delays and lack of assistance for claimants struggling with the poorly functioning system.
- Equity is undermined, when staff display a lack of cultural competency or understanding of persons of color or urban claimants, or when claimants face disparate impact based on race, language, status, or disability in being able to use the technology.
If these problems are not solved before a recession, suffering among unemployed workers will be even greater.
These problems are not only policy and operations failures; they also violate legal requirements that include due process and payment of benefits “when due.”
Some DLI management seem to conceive of the many current issues as “glitches” to be methodically worked through like a punch list. That view lacks context. Pennsylvania’s UC system is thoroughly broken and needs a comprehensive plan to repair it, as soon as possible.
The challenge before DLI is to identify, prioritize and implement strategies that will most effectively rectify these daunting systemic problems. This paper recommends possible solutions.
- Remove Technology Barriers that Prevent Eligible People from Getting Benefits.
- Eliminate Delays in Paying Benefits and Become Compliant with Federal Law.
- Provide More Effective Communications with Claimants.
- The Performance of DLI’s Software Contractor Must Improve.
- Reform Identity Verification.
- Improve Handling of Overpayment Collections.
- Implement Data Collection, Transparency, and Reflection.
- Open Hiring to All Parts of the State, Especially Philadelphia and Other Urban Areas.
This paper is endorsed by the Philadelphia Unemployment Project and the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee.
To read CLS’s recommendations to the incoming Shapiro Administration and General Assembly, read more here.