Pa. rolls out assistance program for self-employed, part-timers

Pennsylvania's Department of Labor & Industry has processed at least 50,000 claims since it began accepting applications for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program Friday night.

The program is for residents who would normally not be eligible for unemployment compensation for reasons such as self-employment, insufficient work history or seeking part-time employment.

It's available through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security act, and provides up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits.

"We knew that the sooner we could get that out there and start accepting applications, the better it would be for our citizens," department Secretary Jerry Oleksiak said in a media video call Monday.

Though payments won't go out until the full rollout in a few weeks, gathering information now should help streamline the process, said the department's unemployment compensation benefits policy director, Susan Dickinson.

The department did not have a concrete date for the full rollout as of Monday.

Regular unemployment claims have been increasing exponentially since COVID-19 mitigation efforts began in mid-March.

As of Monday, the department had more than 1.5 million new claims filed since March 15, compared with  40,000 claims in the weeks prior, Oleksiak said.

Large swaths of Pennsylvania’s economy are shut down in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, prompting new unemployment filings to eclipse 1 million in a little more than two weeks and leaving workers struggling to pay their bills.

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In York County, 9,700 workers were unemployed as of earlier this month, for an unemployment rate of 4.1%, slightly lower than the statewide rate of 4.7%, according to preliminary state data.

Oleksiak also reported there have been 976 new workers' compensation claims — 302 of which appear to be related to health care, law enforcement or other first responders to the pandemic.

Pennsylvania residents blasted the Department of Labor & Industry as ill-equipped to handle the sudden increase in unemployment claims, complaining of calls that didn't go through, long waits if they did and glitches with its system.

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To help manage the high volume of requests, the department has brought back 70 retired employees and 100 new staff members, and a virtual assistant the office refers to as "Paula" has answered 60,000 questions so far.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program website, once fully functional, will be easy to use — only requiring a login and no pin — and those eligible for the program can file and receive payment weekly, Dickinson said.

Payments will be at least $195 — which is automatic for those who can't substantiate what quarterly wages are — but will vary on a case-by-case basis. 

Some residents who have tried to file with program have not qualified because the system found they qualified for regular unemployment compensation instead, Dickinson said.

Those who need to reapply for regular compensation this week will not lose any benefits, as no payments have gone out yet, she said.

Residents also don’t have to apply separately for the $600 promised to those receiving benefits from the federal government through the CARES act.

As of last week, the state department had more than 160,000 claimants for that extra payment — a total of $491 million in payouts since its initiation.

Dickinson said the department plans to send messages to applicants once they can file for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program payments. In the meantime, questions can go to

A phone number will be added to contact information this week.