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Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor & Industry conducted a virtual town hall Thursday afternoon to address queries related to unemployment compensation benefits.

The live-streamed event elicited a strong response. More than a dozen Pennsylvanians called in or submitted questions online about a system that was complicated before the COVID-19 outbreak added several tentacles of confusion overnight, also burdening that system.

Since Gov. Tom Wolf shut down non-life-sustaining businesses in mid-March, 2.3 million Pennsylvania residents have filed UC claims.

L&I secretary Jerry Oleksiak and Susan Dickinson, director of Unemployment Compensation Benefits Policy, oversaw the town hall and strove to quell concerns during the hour-long session. They are well aware there have been numerous complaints about not receiving benefits, delays in getting them, email backlogs, an inability to reach UC personnel by phone, and more.

Dickinson, who answered the vast majority of queries, acknowledged that UC language can be misinterpreted – especially during a pandemic, when many people are working at home. She said delays may occur because a UC candidate may incorrectly answer a question, a common one being whether he/she is “able and available” to work.

“Some may be confused about working from home,” Dickinson said. “If you are able to work and can do so from home, you are able and available.

“Read the instructions carefully.”

Dickinson said some applicants list the wrong date for when they became unemployed. It should be the date when they are no longer working.

A number of claimants say they are owed compensation from weeks ago. In that instance, Dickinson said an individual should go to the L&I dashboard and make a back date request.

During the outbreak, the state has implemented three new programs under the federal CARES Act: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (for self-employed, gig workers, contractors and others not normally eligible for UC); Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (13 additional weeks of benefits for those who exhaust their regular UC); and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (an extra $600 per week for those getting UC benefits).

L&I says that since mid-March, it has paid more than $10.8 billion in benefits and ramped up UC staff by 86%. It added that UC staffers have put in 90,000 hours of overtime over that time.

“We are doing all we can to help Pennsylvanians get the benefits they deserve,” Oleksiak said.

Business Writer

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won eight individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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