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The best question may have been the last question, and Susan Dickinson had a rapid-fire response Monday afternoon. Actually, two responses.

During the state Department of Labor & Industry’s weekly news conference, a reporter from Southwestern Pennsylvania asked: What is the biggest mistake applicants make in filing for unemployment compensation and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments?

“Prior to the pandemic, there were certain mistakes people would make,” said Dickinson, director of Unemployment Compensation Benefits Policy for L&I. “One of the biggest since then is people saying they were not able and available for work, when they should have answered they were able and available for work.

“Another answer people are getting wrong is whether they are unemployed due to the disaster. They answer no, and no means no payments. Ask yourself, ‘Is the pandemic the reason you’re not working?’”

She said misunderstanding of the latter question, corrected later, led to “a mass release of payments” last week totaling $154 million for 27,000 residents.

Unemployment compensation is a complicated road to navigate, Dickinson and L&I director Jerry Oleksiak acknowledge every Monday during the virtual get-together. Dickinson’s advice, without preaching, is that consumers “read what we give you thoroughly and understand the program.” Mistakes can result in delays.

Back payments and getting through to L&I continue to be foremost among complaints from Pennsylvanians seeking benefits. Dickinson said the backdated button, which caused confusion and led to benefits delays online, was eliminated late last week.

For clarity, she recommended that applicants and claimants refer to the troubleshooting guide the department is updating on its Facebook page. Dickinson said email is an efficient way to contact L&I, as is Live Chat. Call center lines are usually jammed on Mondays and Tuesdays, least congested on Thursdays and Fridays. Even more help is en route, including the addition of staff from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, a student loan organization.

As for numbers, Oleksiak said $18 billion has been paid in unemployment claims, roughly split between regular UC and federal CARES Act-created benefits (PUA and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation).

The secretary added that 90% of claimants between March 15 and May 15 have received payments.

L&I will have another weekly town hall at 1 p.m. Thursday. To participate, online or by telephone, visit or call 833-380-0719.

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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