Put People First -- Pay UC Benefits Now

Our families need unemployment compensation benefits paid now, not months from now

Aug. 10, 2021

I was out knocking on doors in Mayfair last week, checking to see how people are doing. Again, and again, people mentioned their Unemployment Comp claims – either because we had already helped them, or they needed help again. Since the pandemic started, my office has seen huge numbers of people needing UC assistance – more than any other type of case. It is no exaggeration to say we have handled thousands of these calls.

One man I talked with said he had not gotten paid since the beginning of the year. Another person told me that they are behind on their rent. Still others have had to borrow money from friends and relatives or extended themselves into credit card debt. One woman had her car repossessed because she couldn’t keep up on payments. Losing the car means that getting a new job is doubly difficult now because she has lost her transportation. That does not even go into the financial hit of losing the equity and ownership of a car that she had been making payments on for three years.

All of these folks are working people. All of them lost employment during the pandemic. Many of them have kids and families who need shelter and food. All of them pay their taxes, including paying into the UC insurance system. UC is not a handout. It is a system that is designed to help people through tough times. The pandemic is the quintessential tough time – a rainy day that makes it feel like the flooding will never end.

Our UC system has failed many people – not because there is not enough money – but because it has not gotten to people in time. By the last count, almost 315,000 Pennsylvanians are stuck in the system. The UC benefits that they need – that they deserve – that they paid for – are delayed. Each delay cripples another household monthly budget. Parents must figure out how to get food on the table, keep a roof over their kids’ heads, and get back on their feet after losing their job. They cannot do that if the UC benefit that is supposed to help pay the rent and pay the bills in April, May, and June, does not arrive until September.

The US Department of Labor Acceptable Level of Performance says that 80% of UC determinations must be made within 21 days. In the 1st quarter of 2021 Pennsylvania has met that standard for only 6.26% of claimants.  It met that standard in the 4th quarter for 2020 for only 6.11% of claimants.

Pennsylvania needs to take a cue from other states such as Vermont, California and Oregon that provided benefits without waiting for determinations when they could not determine eligibility in a timely manner.

  • When confronted with their incapacity to provide timely determinations of eligibility, Vermont automatically paid unemployment benefits without determinations from March 2020 until April 2021. “We placed people over process…” said VT Dept. of Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington.
  • When confronted with their incapacity to provide timely determinations of eligibility the Secretary of the California Employment Development Department on March 20, 2020, directed that EDD temporarily pay all claims without determining eligibility.  This directive remained in effect, at least until December 2020, according to a January 2021 report of the CA State Auditor Elaine Howle. 
  • Oregon set up the Benefits While You Wait program to pay over 17,000 claimants without a prior determination in 2020.

Pennsylvania has no plan to reduce the giant backlog of cases awaiting determinations. To resolve the current UC crisis, I have asked the PA Department of Labor & Industry to pay benefits now to all claimants waiting over 21 days for a determination, particularly considering problems arising from the Benefit Modernization program currently being implemented in the state is causing further delays.  

I recognize there are valid concerns of UC claim fraud – and I have helped several constituents who have had their identities compromised by people making false claims. However, the economic losses we face as a state by delaying the prompt and proper payment of claims outweigh the impact of fraudulent claims. The number of fraudulent claims is a drop in the bucket in comparison with the delayed cases. Enforcement can still happen if a claim is erroneously paid – but my neighbors cannot pay the rent or get their repossessed cars back or have the stability they need to get back into the job market if their benefits are delayed.

Our families need these benefits paid now, not months from now!