Nearly six months after the Wolf Administration ordered the COVID-19 shutdown for Pennsylvania businesses deemed nonessential, at least one state lawmaker wants to know just how prepared the state’s unemployment system was for the unprecedented event.
On Tuesday, state Rep. Kate Klunk, R-Hanover, sent a letter to Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak asking when he first learned of Gov. Tom Wolf’s shutdown order and what communications his office had with the Department of Community and Economic Development before and after the order.
In addition, Klunk wants to know if the Department of Labor and Industry ever conducted an exercise that simulated a massive spike in unemployment cases, and if there were, what was the outcome of those events.
“Having heard from you multiple times, and understanding your support for the March 19, 2020, shutdown order, I continue to question how prepared the department was for a surge in Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate and what coordination, if any, existed within the Wolf administration leading up to the issuance of the March 19,2020, shutdown order to put plans in place to deal with millions of unemployed Pennsylvanians,” Klunk wrote in the letter.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state’s unemployment rate for July was 13.7 percent. Only four states posted higher figures.
August figures are expected to be released later this week.
The COVID-19 shutdown has led to almost 4 million Pennsylvanians to file a claim for unemployment, and Klunk claims in the letter the state’s Office of Unemployment Compensation has not responded properly to their needs. Phone calls have gone unanswered and payments either have been wrongfully denied or delayed, adding to the hardships families have faced during the crisis.
“My staff and I have spent countless hours on the phone with residents, many of whom were near to tears or crying, who haven’t received a cent in unemployment compensation,” Klunk said in a statement. “Their stories are gut-wrenching. Sadly, their stories are not unique. We must work toward a solution to the problems so that not one more Pennsylvanian has to suffer.”
In addition, Klunk asked Oleksiak for a breakdown by state House district of how many people applied for unemployment and how many still await a final ruling on their application.
According to information from the Labor and Industry Department, as of last week, the state has dispensed about $26 billion in payments to Pennsylvanians. The unemployment office has resolved 97 percent of claims filed between March 15 and Aug. 1, meaning claims have either been approved or denied.
The remaining cases, which total about 50,000, were not approved automatically, the state said and await resolution.
In all, the unemployment office has helped 1 million claimants via email, more than 450,000 by phone, more than 140,000 by LiveChat and nearly 320,000 through its Virtual Assistant services.
In a statement, Labor and Industry officials said they are “continuing to focus on these customer service improvements but will not be truly satisfied until every Pennsylvanian who is eligible gets the unemployment benefits they worked hard for and deserve.”