Action News Troubleshooters: Getting answers about unemployment

With no other income, families need unemployment benefits to survive.

The Action News Troubleshooters have received dozens and dozens of complaints from people who say they're not getting the money they're due and they can't reach anyone at Pennsylvania or New Jersey unemployment for answers.

"This is the first time in my life I've ever been unemployed," said Michelle Rhett who applied for unemployment benefits four months ago.

Rhett told the Troubleshooters she still hasn't received one payment.

"It's just frustrating to try to get the payments," she said.

More than 140 consumers tell the Troubleshooters they're having problems with unemployment, both in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

And on a recent Zoom call, nearly two dozen people shared their stories with Action News.

"I don't know how I'm gonna keep my head above water," said one viewer.

All tell us they are owed thousands in back benefits as bills mount.

"How many of you have had trouble reaching somebody at customer service?" asked Nydia Han.

Everyone in our group raised their hand.

One person told us, "Nine solid weeks, I called three to 500 times a day. Never got through."

The Action News Troubleshooters also tried more than a dozen times to reach representatives in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey and also heard the familiar busy signal or recorded "call back the next business day" message.

The Troubleshooter went to Rob Asaro-Angelo, the commissioner of the NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development, to ask why.

"What do you say to those people who are still waiting for payments and cannot get through to talk to a live person?" asked Nydia Han.

"One: that we are completely empathetic," said Asaro-Angelo.

He also told the Troubleshooters, "There's no doubt that it's difficult getting through, and we have 1.6 million claimants in New Jersey right now."

In Pennsylvania, Secretary of Labor and Industry Jerry Oleksiak told the Troubleshooters claims soared from 40,000 in three weeks to over one-million.

And currently, up to 70,000 claims in question are waiting to be processed.

"And just when we were feeling like we had a handle on it, the fraud epidemic started," said Oleksiak.

That fraud caused new payouts for the pandemic unemployment assistance program to be postponed which added to the volume of questions and calls.

But both states claim progress and improvements are coming.

"We've gone from about 770-some employees in our call centers to close to 2,000 now," said Oleksiak.

Pennsylvania said it now answers more than 6,300 calls and responds to 9,000 emails daily. It expects to go up to 8,000 calls and 11,000 emails daily by year's end.

Plus, Pennsylvania's Department of Labor and Industry said it recently partnered with another third party vendor.

Asaro-Angelo said it has already doubled the number of claims examiners hired by the state and is continually hiring.

"The problem is that it's not something that can be taught overnight, our normal training for UI claims examiners is six months," said Asaro-Angelo.

Asaro-Angelo also blames delays on federal requirements, particularly for teachers and people who work in multiple states.

"The barriers and the hurdles that some have to go through to become eligible for unemployment aren't about technology, or calling a call center," he said. "They're about a federal statute in federal law, that for way too long, have been too restrictive, especially during a pandemic."

Both states promised the Troubleshooters they'd respond to the consumers we sent their way.

If you are still having issues reaching an unemployment representative, besides contacting the Troubleshooters, you can ask the state legislator's office to help you or in Pennsylvania reach out to the Career Link office.

PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND INDUSTRY STATEMENT:

"L&I understands the frustration of not being able to quickly connect to a staff member, and we are continuing to implement strategies to reduce call volume and wait times. We know unemployment compensation is essential to helping Pennsylvanians pay for necessities like housing and food, and our staff is doing everything possible to ensure every eligible Pennsylvanian gets the support they are entitled to as quickly as possible.

Pennsylvania, like other states across the country, saw a historic surge in unemployment compensation claims due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our UC call centers experienced capacity challenges as a result of this unprecedented situation, and we have been working diligently to reduce call wait times and open other channels of communication to assist as many Pennsylvanians as quickly as possible. Since March 15, L&I has paid out more than $29.4 billion in unemployment compensation, including payments made for several federal programs created specifically for the pandemic.

L&I has responded by more than doubling the number of staff in the UC service centers since the start of the pandemic. These staff members assist with answering the phones, responding to emails, and helping claimants via the UC Live Chat. Recently, a chatbot feature was added to UC Live Chat to answer many of the more common questions, freeing up staff to connect with individuals with more complex questions. The chatbot also refers individuals to a live staff member if it is unable to assist. Claimants can also email UChelp@pa.gov. The response time will vary based on the complexity of an individual's claims issue. We continue to ask claimants to please be patient as it may take us some time to research their claim and respond to their unique situation.

We are now able to answer more than 6,300 calls and respond to 9,000 emails daily and expect to be answering 8,000 calls and responding to 11,000 emails daily by the end of the year. UC employees, including those in the service centers, have assisted more than 1.2 million individuals by email, 626,000 by phone, 168,000 through UC Live Chat, and 774,000 by chatbot since March 15.

L&I holds weekly online town halls to provide people with answers to common questions about claims and benefits. Because we cannot guarantee security over third-party sites such as Facebook and Twitter, claimants should never share their personal information publicly or try to contact us through social media.

L&I understands how frustrating it can be to wait on hold or not be able to reach UC staff immediately, and we are doing everything we can do to increase our call and Live Chat capacity and resolve outstanding claims. We apologize for the frustration caused by our overwhelmed phone system and appreciate claimants' patience as we continue to make improvements that will better assist them."


What is the current average hold time for phone calls? Average response time for emails? Web chats?

Phone wait time varies from 30 to 40 minutes, while chat wait time is usually between five and six minutes. Some days and times are busier than others, so we suggest to people who are having trouble getting through to try different days and times. As the secretary said, we are continuing to work to reduce these waiting times. Email response varies by the subject matter. A more complex issue will take longer to resolve, while other emails can be responded to fairly quickly. To assist with the unprecedented volume, L&I has more than doubled its staff from 775 to 1,998 employees. We are now capable of answering more than 6,300 calls and 9,000 emails daily, in addition to assisting claimants through LiveChat and Virtual Assistant, and we are on a course to expand our daily call capacity to answer 8,000 calls and respond to 11,000 emails daily by the end of the year.

Do you still hold the weekly town halls where people can ask questions?

Yes, they are usually on Thursdays at 1 p.m. We encourage anyone with questions about unemployment to participate, and we are incorporating other topics into the Town Halls, such as job search and reskilling opportunities. We are doing everything we can to connect with Pennsylvanians during this vital time.

What is the average time an appeal is processed and either a decision is rendered or a next step taken/scheduled? Has the number of appeals filed gone up since the pandemic? By how much? Is there additional staff dedicated to appeals?

In September 2020, 59.8 percent of referee decisions were issued within 45 days of the appeal. For the 5-month period of April through August 2020, the appeals received has increased 23.3 percent over the same 5-month period in 2019. There is currently not a backlog of appeals in referee offices so an increase in referee office staff has not yet been necessary. However, we continue to monitor the situation and may make staffing adjustments if the volume of appeals increases.

The Secretary may have already answered this.. but how many accounts were put on hold due to possible fraud? And were those only PUA accounts?

After we detected a surge of fraudulent claims in September, we temporarily placed holds on about 117,000 new claims through the PUA program. Only new PUA claimants were affected by these temporarily holds, which are now being lifted through the implementation of the new ID.me verification process. People already receiving PUA payments or in other UC programs are unaffected. ID.me is assisting L&I with providing identify verification, which is allowing for fraudulent claims to be more quickly identified, speeding up the verification process for legitimate claimants while preventing fraudsters from obtaining illegal payments.
Can you also provide the number of claims paid and the dollar amount since the pandemic? For unemployment as well as PUA, etc.?

We have paid out $29,233,438,717.50 in all employment programs since March 15. Broken down:

Lost Wages Assistance: 5,527,842 claims totaling $1,657,652,490

Extended Benefits: 249,599 claims totaling $101,221,498

Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation: 1,122,708 claims totaling $420,355,212

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance: 32,965,791 claims totaling $5,570,512,614

Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation: 26,490,358 claims totaling $15,894,230,905

Unemployment Compensation: 22,062,730 claims totaling $5,589,465,999

Please note that a claimant can file multiple claims for several weeks.

What is the current number of backlogged unemployment claims (claims that have been filed but not yet processed)? How does that compare to the number of claims received?

We are receiving about 20,000 initial claims per week, which is about double what it was each of the previous three years during this time. Some of these claims require adjudication, which is a fact-finding process to resolve discrepancies. One example would be a discrepancy between the stated income on the application and the income reported by the employer. Unemployment claims that require adjudication require manual review by staff. We are currently estimating between 50,000 and 70,000 claims awaiting this process. This number changes weekly based on the number of claims that are filed and if staff determine a case to be "no issue" meaning, no adjudication is needed. Due to the unprecedented volume of claims, L&I recently contracted with Ernst & Young to provide additional support to adjudication. We anticipate the volume of claims awaiting adjudication to be significantly reduced in the coming weeks due to this additional support.

Also, what is the average processing time for claims?

Many claims are automatically processed by the system and take just a few minutes. After processing, some time is needed for the payments to be made in part due to the banking process. A typical unemployment compensation claim takes about three weeks from application to payment. More complex cases, such as those involving out-of-state wages, will take longer. For claims that require full adjudication and fact finding, we are currently estimating at least two months.

What is the rate of claims that are processed but then unpaid/denied?

About one-third of claimants are found to be ineligible for benefits. This figure does not include fraudulent claims.

NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT STATEMENT:

"Let me start by saying, The Department of Labor and Workforce Development feels for each and every claimant awaiting payment, and continues to work day and night to get eligible claimants every penny of benefits they deserve.

There are many reasons payment could be delayed, suspended, or never arrive. Those reasons include, but are not limited to: claimant is awaiting a determination of their claim by an agent; claimant filed more than one claim, or filed in more than one state; claimant worked in more than one state, requiring us per federal law to retrieve wage records from each state in which claimant worked before benefits can paid; claimant provided incorrect or incomplete information on their application (probably by mistake, but federal law requires us to check); claimant is not eligible for benefits; claimant and employer differ on the reason for separation, requiring a determination hearing; claimant returned to work; claimant did not respond to repeated requests for information about their claim; or claimant answered the weekly certification questions in such a way as to raise questions about their continued eligibility, suspending their claim.

Without doing a deep dive into each of the claimants you provided, it is impossible to know why these particular individuals are experiencing issues with their claim. There are two reasons why I cannot look into each of their claims individually: First, I do not have access to claimants' personal information; and second, you did not provide near enough detail. We have more than 1.6 million claims in our system since March. We cannot reliably look up a claim based on a name, phone number and a belief that they or a spouse are owed money.

I would strongly suggest that claimants experiencing issues call our regional call center. The call center numbers can be found on our website. The call center staff are available, responsive, and if the lines are busy, claimants are offered a callback. Call wait times have drastically decreased from the height of the pandemic.

We have hired additional staff, temporarily transferred staff from other divisions, brought back retired agents, stood up a new call center, and "borrowed" staff from other areas of state government to help handle the historic volume of claims. The result is several hundred additional staff. We have also equipped hundreds of DOL staff members to work remotely, thus keeping them productive and safe amid COVID.

A person receives benefits in 2-3 weeks after applying, providing that we receive a completed claim and there are no underlying issues (such as those described above). About half the claims are processed in that time frame. The rest take longer due to the reasons described above."

It is important to note that we must follow federal law in processing claims, which includes verifying the identity of the claimant to prevent fraud.

Again, I want to emphasize how much we empathize with claimants struggling to make ends meet during a global pandemic. Many times, our agents have cried along with our claimants. We want to see everyone get all their benefits, and, we are proud to report we have distributed $16.5 billion to 1.44 billion eligible NJ workers as of last week. The average claimant has received nearly $12,000 in wage-replacement benefits, at a time they need the money most."


CLICK HERE to view Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo's letter to Members of New Jersey Congressional Delegation

More resources:

L&I Takes Additional Action Against New Wave Of PUA Fraud
L&I Launches New Identity Verification Steps To Thwart PUA Fraud
UC Service Center Busy Signals: What is an Unemployed Person to Do?
Division of Unemployment Insurance in NJ
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