Unemployment claims in Pennsylvania surged in wake of the coronavirus.

Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak and Susan Dickinson, unemployment compensation benefits policy director, said on Monday enhanced customer service measures have advanced the state’s unemployment compensation program since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Oleksiak said the department has distributed $30.6 billion since March 16 through various streams of funding, including regular benefits, federal pandemic assistance – the extra $600 per week – and benefits for people for who are traditionally not eligible for unemployment compensation. 

He said 93% of claimants since March 16 have been paid or determined to be not eligible. He said 7% of claims are under review by staff. 

“While we are proud of getting money into pockets of people who need it, we won’t be truly satisfied until all eligible people are made whole,” he said.  

For those who are waiting on the status of their application, Dickinson said there are about 20 different paths an unemployment application can take in order to be approved or deemed ineligible.

Transposing first and last names, address checks, out-of-state wages or military wages, all of those variables require human review, which took time even before COVID-19 claims, she said.  

In addition, Oleksiak said the department continues to investigate instances of fraud within a particular benefits program – Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, a federally funded program. That is the program for people, including small business owners and freelancers traditionally not eligible for unemployment compensation. 

“We continue to battle PUA fraud. It’s going on around the country,” he said. 

Instances of identity theft have been made in attempts to intercept the benefits electronically.  

To prevent benefits from reaching people using others’ identities, the department had ended electronic distribution of benefits and now only sends mail. As a result, victims of identity theft received benefits in the mail instead of the people who used the victim’s address to file a fraudulent claim. 

“Many people are doing the right thing and returning fraudulent benefits,” he said.

Russ O'Reilly is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @RussellOReilly.


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