Troubleshooters get answers as unemployment complaints continue to pile up

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Complaints from consumers desperate for their unemployment money continue to pour into the Action News Troubleshooters.

While Action News helped several viewers get their unemployment money a few months ago, the Troubleshooters are continuing to try to help more viewers, but a new issue has cropped up, impacting tens of thousands of people.

"We're worried about, you know, what we're going to eat," said Stephanie Baehr, of Mount Laurel, New Jersey. "I'm worried about losing my car insurance."

The list of worries feels endless for Baehr as she is still waiting for her unemployment benefits.

"I was approved for an 11-week extension. However, I haven't received anything and going on five weeks now," she said.

The second stimulus bill authorized that extension of unemployment benefits plus an additional 300-dollars per week.

"They owe me almost $6,000," she said.

Thousands of other consumers are also waiting for their money.

The New Jersey Department of Labor said, "75,000 people are experiencing a lapse in their benefits while NJ Labor Department reprograms its systems with the extension...Former President Trump signed the stimulus at the last moment, not giving the states enough time to program their systems... We are working seven days a week to administer this new benefit as quickly as possible..."

Some other states have been able to pay the extended benefits without delay and New Jersey isn't able to say exactly when those new benefits will get into the hands of consumers.

"They have no timeframe and you just have to wait," said Gwen Himmelreich, of Ocean City, New Jersey. "I don't know how they expect me to tell my landlord to wait. The bills to wait."

"If they haven't gotten their money, they'll get every penny that they're rightfully owed. But I'll put what we've done over the past 12 months through the Department of Labor up against any state," said New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy.

New Jersey also said this is impacting less than 5% of its claimants.

Meantime, complaints from Pennsylvania consumers haven't let up either. Now, the press office is telling Action News they can't help our viewers instead pointing the Troubleshooters requests to the general email to customer service, which our viewers have already tried without success.

Baehr's advice for others: "They may not answer you, but at least they know that you haven't forgotten. And just keep working and plugging away at it."

On behalf of our viewers, the Troubleshooters have passed along viewers' issues to not only the Pennsylvania press office but also directly to that customer inbox.

As far as New Jersey, the Commissioner of the Department of Labor will be a guest at Governor Murphy's press briefing on Friday.

The Troubleshooters will be there, as well.

NJ Labor Department Full Statement:

"There is a universe of claimants whose benefits expired and they are waiting for the 11 additional weeks authorized under the Continued Assistance for Unemployed Workers Act to be added to their accounts. While many of our claimants can transition to this new benefit without delay or interruption, less than 5 percent of NJ claimants -- 75,000 people -- are experiencing a lapse in their benefits while NJ Labor Department reprograms its systems with the extension. Unfortunately, claimants in many states are experiencing the same situation.

Former President Trump signed the stimulus at the last moment, not giving the states enough time to program their systems to administer the 11-week extension to all claimants without delay.

Claimants have been notified, and we are working seven days a week to administer this new benefit as quickly as possible. We fully understand claimants whose benefits expired need these funds, and we are doing everything possible to restart these claimants' benefits."

PA Labor Department:

What is the reason for the continuing delays in people getting their unemployment money? Is there a specific issue/system problem related to people getting money related to the extensions?

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) programs are special programs created by the federal government in the federal CARES Act to assist unemployed workers affected by the 2019 COVID-19 pandemic. These programs expired on Dec. 26, but President Trump signed an 11 weeks extension on Dec. 27.

Because of delays in getting the legislation for the extension signed until after the programs ended and getting necessary guidance from the federal Department of Labor on how the new legislation should be enacted, the ability to log in and file a claims through the programs were suspended temporarily. The PUA program was suspended until Jan. 22, when it was reopened and provided 11 additional weeks to all claimants. The 11 additional weeks became available to PEUC claimants on Jan. 24, with claimants who had some of their weeks remaining on Dec. 26 able to file for those weeks several days earlier

Several technical issues arose as part of the programmatic changes and system reprogramming that occurred due to changes in the new extension law. L&I has worked with its vendors to address most of these issues, but we are aware of a few that remain outstanding that are affecting small groups of claimants. L&I has been making regular announcements about the status of these issues on our Facebook page, Twitter page, and website.

Additionally, due to the high volume of PUA claimants attempting to log onto the online system in the days after the PUA program reopened, the PUA program vendor instated a "waiting room" to prevent the site from becoming overwhelmed. The "waiting room" is a pre-entry queue that claimants are routed to after the PUA website reaches a maximum number of active users. Claimants reach this waiting room when they go to file a new claim or a weekly claim certification.

Wait times will vary depending on how many other users are on the website. At most times there is no waiting. Because Sunday is the first day of the filing week, it is typically our busiest day for filing. This volume is lower between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m. and typically decreases as the week goes on. It's important to remind PUA claimants that claims do not need to be filed on Sundays or Mondays - a PUA claim week runs from Sunday through Saturday.

What should people do to try to get their issues resolved with PA unemployment?

Emailing uchelp@pa.gov (for Unemployment Compensation, Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, and Extended Benefits claimants) or ucpua@pa.gov (for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claimants) is the best way to reach us.

Because of the volume of claimants attempting to file claims in the days after the PUA and PEUC programs reopened, the volume of phone, chat and email contacts we've received has increased dramatically. This means that the two-week response window we had in December for claimants who are emailing us has increased. We thank claimants for their patience and understanding as we work through each email to ensure every claimant is getting their questions and concerns addressed.

We encourage claimants to monitor our social media pages for updates. We post regularly about the status of ongoing issues. If claimants see their issue listed, they do not need to contact us (unless we specify in the post for them to do so) because we are already aware and working on the issue that is affecting them.

What is PA doing to improve the response time?

Since the start of the pandemic, L&I has more than doubled our customer service staff and are actively working to hire additional customer service representatives. We have also prioritized fixing the outstanding issues that we know are affecting claimants' ability to file for and receive benefits, which we hope ultimately decreases the number of claimants who need to speak to a customer service representative. We apologize for the frustration claimants are experiencing and are attempting to do everything we can to improve our customer service.

"Send (complaints) to uchelp@pa.gov (for UC/PEUC/EB claimants) or ucpua@pa.gov (for PUA claimants)."

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