Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry Secretary Jennifer Berrier provided updates regarding the agency’s challenges in paying out unemployment compensation benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic; their efforts to fight fraudulent UC claims that have skyrocketed since the pandemic began; new technology infrastructure and more at a hearing last week with the House Labor and Industry Committee.
The massive number of pandemic-related jobless claims last year overwhelmed the UC system and led to a backlog of thousands of Pennsylvanians waiting months for payments and unable to reach anyone from the department for assistance. The department reported that long-awaited updates to the system were completed this year which brought the backlog from around 320,000 to 91,826 pending determinations; and more than 525,000 people receiving more than $3 billion in benefits since June.
As the department tackled pandemic-related backlogs, a related challenge began to emerge and wreak havoc on the UC system – a significant uptick in UC fraud. L&I has struggled to root out fraudulent claims, and although the UC system upgrades have been generally lauded, it is suspected the transition likely opened a window of opportunity for fraudsters.
Sec. Berrier also told committee members that many job vacancies – particularly in the struggling hospitality sector – are a result of workers re-evaluating their career choices, and that child care struggles are a persistent barrier to getting people back in the workforce who left due to the pandemic – namely women and minority workers.
L&I representatives were also questioned if they believe a former employee should be eligible for UC if they quit because of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. “It’s very much on a case-by-case basis,” Deputy Secretary for Unemployment Compensation Susan Dickinson said. “If we determine that the person quit, then the burden of proof is on that person to show that they had a good reason to quit. If the case is discharge, then the burden of proof is on the employer to show that the discharge was necessary,” Dickinson added.