At hearing, Pennsylvania officials dig into what led to long delays in processing unemployment claims

Pennsylvania state Rep. Jim Gregory speaks Aug. 12, 2020, during a hearing of the House Labor and Industry Committee at the Capitol in Harrisburg.

An estimated 2 percent of Pennsylvania residents’ unemployment claims have yet to be processed five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, which was the subject of scrutiny at a Wednesday hearing.

Several state officials went before members of the state House Labor and Industry Committee during a wide-ranging, three-hour discussion of unemployment claims. It was the first time the committee delved into the issue since late May.

Gerard Oleksiak, secretary of the Department of Labor and Industry, discussed how the state agency has been working its way through unprecedented circumstances.

Since the first influx of claims funneled into the department in mid-March, Oleksiak said staffing has increased 114 percent, year-over-year, and 242,000 of collective overtime hours have been recorded to meet the initial swell in demand.

“No one has been satisfied, and we won’t be satisfied, until everyone who is eligible for benefits has been made whole,” Oleksiak said.

When pressed by the committee for the reasons for the continued lag in the unprocessed filings — some going back to the initial days of the pandemic — Oleksiak described the filings as “unique claimants,” who required more intensive reviews of their circumstances.

At times during the back-and-forth exchange between Oleksiak, other state agency officials and lawmakers, there were a few barbed exchanges.

State Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, recalled Oleksiak’s prior comments in May about having sleepless nights as claimants awaited responses and faced financial hardships.

“I’m not hearing from the 98 percent,” Gregory said. “I’m hearing from the 2 percent.”

Gregory also shared a relayed message from a constituent, who reported he or she had to recently redial 300 times to reach an unemployment claims specialist within the department.

“Of course, 300 (redials) is not acceptable to us,” Oleksiak said, in response. “We are doing all we can. We are not happy that people still do not have their claims resolved. We are very serious and determined to get this done.”

In response to Gregory’s recitation of the May remarks, Oleksiak said, “The ‘sleepless nights’ thing – that was unnecessary.”

A brief portion of the hearing also delved into the challenges of fraud, which have been reported, particularly for such programs as pandemic unemployment assistance, which is aimed at providing financial resources to contractors and other people who would traditionally not receive unemployment benefits.

Oleksiak in his testimony to the committee confirmed efforts are being taken to mitigate fraud and abuse.

“This is a national issue,” he said. “This is not something that has impacted Labor and Industry in Pennsylvania alone. There is an ongoing criminal investigation, and we are making great progress.”

The hearing also provided some lawmakers with a platform to share their views on government’s role in responding to the coronavirus.

At the conclusion of the meeting, State Rep. Jim Cox, R-Berks, said the goal posts in response to the pandemic are moving, by his assessment. While talk of shutdowns this spring focused on flattening the curve, efforts, he said, have since shifted to trying to prevent anyone from testing positive.

“Back in March, all of these things might have been acceptable,” Cox said of the precautions. “But we’ve moved on quite a bit. Safety cannot be the sole driving force. We are never going to keep everyone from getting COVID-19.”

In his closing remarks, Cox implored his elected colleagues to consider the bigger picture.

“I’m not minimizing anyone who’s lost their lives,” he said. “But I want to provide perspective here. It is not the government’s job to keep people safe. It’s time to get back to living.”