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New unemployment system issues? Philadelphia Legal Assistance offers help

July 7, 2021 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pennsylvania’s unemployment system has been inundated with claims. More than 2.5 million people filed initial claims last year, many of whom battled long wait times for determinations, delayed payments and more frustrations.

On June 8, Pennsylvania’s Unemployment Compensation System got a makeover that was more than 20 years in the making.

Beyond a cosmetic upgrade, the system offers a plethora of new features, including a communications dashboard, virtual documentation and “Keystone ID” login that eliminates the use of a mailed PIN number.

Claimants can also file for benefits weekly rather than every other week, allowing for more frequent payments. (To file a claim or learn more about the new system, visit uc.pa.gov.)

“The [old] system was cumbersome for individuals filing claims, as well as staff and employers,” said Sarah DeSantis, press secretary for the state’s Department of Labor and Industry, who noted the system was more than 40 years old.

The department also hired more than 1,000 new unemployment staff members to speed up customer service and claim decisions. DeSantis said the state made nearly 800,000 payments in June, totaling more than $684 million.

However, tens of thousands of unemployed workers are still waiting on determinations, some of whom have waited more than six months.

“We haven’t heard of anyone getting decisions on their claims who’ve been waiting,” said Supervising Attorney Julia Simon-Mishel of Philadelphia Legal Assistance. “Staff at the department have been working their tails off trying to understand and learn the new system. But, I’m not sure how much time that leaves them to be evaluating outstanding eligibility issues.”

DeSantis said the new system will allow staff to complete more determinations each day.

“The new system is faster and easier to use for staff,” she said. “This is reducing the number of individuals who are awaiting approval for a claim that is complex and requires manual staff review.”

There have been nine widespread issues reported to the department since the system’s launch, including issues logging in and wrong information appearing on the portal. The department has been tracking its response via a “System Check” page on the website.

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“The problem right now is that some of the information doesn’t seem correct online. So that’s not helpful,” Simon-Mishel said. “The technology is new and a bit overwhelming for people. Sometimes the information looks a little funky, so it throws them off.”

Philadelphia Legal Assistance, which has been offering resources for claimants prior to and throughout the pandemic, launched uchelp.org, a website that serves as a one-stop shop for people learning how to navigate the new system.

The site offers step-by-step guides for how to file a claim, answers to frequently asked questions and a survey allowing unemployment users to give feedback on the system.

“We tried to make it a little more user-friendly than the overwhelming amount of information on the department’s website,” Simon-Mishel said.

While the state irons out problems with the new system, Simon-Mishel said all claimants should continue to file for weekly benefits. Even those who have waited months for a determination or have since started working have a right to unemployment compensation.

“Even if you stopped filing, you should start filing again and ask the department to allow you to backdate,” she explained. “If they then find you eligible for benefits, they owe you money for all of those back weeks that you have filed for.”

“You haven’t lost your right to those funds, whatsoever.”

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