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When will you get your Pa. unemployment check? The state still can't say

The empty parking lot is reflected in the door of temporarily closed Old Navy store in Indianapolis, Thursday, April 2, 2020. More than 6.6 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits the week of March 23, far exceeding a record high set just last week, a sign that layoffs are accelerating in the midst of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry on Monday estimated that out of about 1.65 million unemployment claims filed during the coronavirus crisis, only about 70% of people have received benefits.

In a news conference Monday, department Secretary Jerry Oleksiak was unable to say when the backlog would be cleared, despite efforts that include drafting about 500 employees from other state agencies to help.

State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill called the situation "unacceptable."

"I continue to hear from York countians who have waited a month with no resolution to their claim," the York Township Republican said in a news release Monday.

Phillips-Hill stated she is introducing legislation to add more transparency to the process by requiring the department to post unemployment compensation data daily.

Part of the problem is an outdated system that was ill-equipped to handle the sudden, large spike in claims since mid-March, when most mitigation efforts such as school and business closures and stay-at-home orders began, Labor and Industry officials said.

"It’s something that we didn’t have the opportunity to gear up for because it happened that quickly," Oleksiak said.

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

The state had been seeing record low unemployment prior to the pandemic, but within three weeks of mitigation efforts, more than 1 million claims were filed. As of Monday, the number was at 1.65 million, according to the department.

The department estimates that only 70% of people have received payments so far, according to Susan Dickinson, the director for unemployment compensation benefits policy, who added that figure was a rough estimate.

“We are frustrated as well,” Oleksiak said. “We have family members who are impacted by this — these aren’t just strangers.”

More:26 million have sought U.S. jobless aid since virus hit

One issue is the need to manually process claims with base-year wages over $100,000. The system is more than 40 years old and was not built for wages over that amount, Dickinson said.

A benefits modernization program that was already in the works following a 2017 audit will go live in October, Oleksiak said.

Despite a 25-day email backlog, the department still took 21,500 calls last week, and Dickinson encouraged residents to call on Thursdays or Fridays when phone lines are less busy. Emails will still be answered, and there is a live chat option.

The department has drawn on about 500 staff from other agencies, trained existing Department of Labor and Industry staff in unemployment, brought back more than 70 retired employees and will have 100 new hires to help reduce the backlog by mid-May.

Additionally, the department is utilizing artificial intelligence to answer questions.

But it's too soon to estimate when all who filed for unemployment compensation will receive their first checks, Oleksiak said.

More:Need a job? These 'essential' positions waiting to be filled

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program — a federal program 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 — opened for applications April 17.

It has already received 107,000 claims, and Oleksiak estimates participants of that program will begin to receive benefits by early May. 

Pennsylvania is unlike other states in that it does not have mandatory sick or paid leave — drawing many to unemployment benefits as their only source of relief, and contributing to the backlog, Oleksiak said.

The department also received its own delays from the federal government in receiving guidance and authority before it could process checks.

"It’s important that we follow the rules and regulations and dot the i’s and cross the t’s, but what’s more important to me is that we remember there are real people at the end of the process,” Oleksiak said.

“And we know these are real people who are hurting right now,” he said.