As the US economy emerges from another wave of COVID-19 and weekly unemployment claims reduce nationally, Pennsylvania’s Unemployment Compensation (UC) system is still overburdened and understaffed, with thousands of cases unresolved.
A recent report from Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor & Industry showed that in February, “jobs increased in eight of the 11 industry super-sectors” and “the employment count rose 12,000 (to 6,042,000) while resident unemployment declined 13,000 (to 328,000).”
Unemployment claims had increased nationally in January following the increase of Omicron variant infections, resulting in a slowdown of services in several industries.
While Pennsylvania’s economy was hit hard by the pandemic, job markets are steadily improving. The state has recovered 80percent of the 1.1 million jobs lost in the early months of the pandemic, and Labor and Industry reports that last month, “Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate dropped three-tenths of a percent to 5.1percent from January’s rate.”
At the same time, Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation system is still facing difficulties sorting through a backlog of jobless claims. In her House Appropriations Committee testimony, Labor & Industry Secretary Jennifer Berrier reported a backlog of 47,000 UC cases as of March 3, 2022.
This backlog is a symptom of a bigger problem: an understaffed Department of Labor and Industry. In his October 2020 testimony to Pennsylvania lawmakers, former Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak claimed, “Historically, staffing shortages have been a chronic issue for UC, even in ‘good’ times.’” He adds that one of the department’s hardest obstacles to overcome is “the lack of examiners we have on hand to issue determinations.”
UC examiners, or employees who work to gather information from claimants and their former employers to determine eligible benefits, are highly qualified professionals necessary for Labor & Industry to function, and hiring new examiners takes time. On average, UC examiners have 8.5 years of service within Labor & Industry under their belts, and before they can even be considered for the position, they must have at least one year of experience as a UC interviewer. The barrier to entry is high, and while the department is working to fill these positions, many are still vacant.
In 2021, Secretary Berrier testified that to “fully operate and provide excellent customer service,” Labor and Industry needs about 2,000 staff total. Currently, it has less than half that number. Two hundred and eighteen examiners work in Labor and Industry, and there are still 80 vacant positions for UC interviewers.
Meanwhile, the worker shortage in the Department of Labor & Industry coupled with pandemic-related market disruptions have left tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians without their benefits.