Unemployed wait two hours to call for help on compensation
About an hour into her wait at CareerLink's York County office Monday morning, Nicole Gracey realized she would need to reschedule an appointment at her son's school.
Gracey, a school bus driver living in York City, was among a group of about 30 waiting to use one of the office's two direct lines to a state unemployment compensation office.
"I just reasoned money is more important this week," she said, pointing out that she hadn't been able to work or make money during the holidays.
Gracey and others were waiting hours at CareerLink because of issues with their unemployment claims that they couldn't solve online and because they couldn't reach the offices by calling from their own phones.
Call wait times and busy signals to the unemployment compensation centers have drastically increased since a lack of funding forced the state Department of Labor and Industry to furlough more than 500 employees in December, according to the department.
Julia Simon-Mishel, an attorney for Philadelphia Legal Assistance, which aids low-income residents dealing with issues regarding their unemployment claims, said since those furloughs, her clients have been either getting busy signals or put on hold for endless hours when they try to call the centers.
The furloughs included the closures of three of the state's seven unemployment compensation centers in Lancaster, Altoona and Allentown, and the offices have reduced the number of days people can call in from four days per week to three: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.
A department spokeswoman could not be reached for comment on this story.
Delays: Simon-Mishel said the furloughs have also led to delays in her clients receiving their claims, which is leading to more confusion that they can't resolve because they can't reach call-center employees.
Michael Rudisill, an out-of-work forklift operator living in Dover Township, was in the midst of a 2 1/2 hour wait to use one of CareerLink's phone lines Monday because his bi-weekly claim check was already three days late and he didn't know why.
"Bills don't wait," he said, adding that he never had an issue before the furloughs.
Rudisill said the time he spent waiting to use the phone is time he could've spent looking for another job or completing housework.
Simon-Mishel said many of her clients were living paycheck to paycheck before losing their jobs, and the fear is that these people could lose their homes or apartments amid the uncertainty.
"Before, we would have an idea of when a problem might be fixed and they could talk to their landlord," she said. "Now, there's no starting point."
Gracey said she's worried about what she'll do this summer if the issues continue with the unemployment compensation centers. She loves being a school bus driver and being able to stay home with her three children, she said, but continued delays in receiving financial aid might mean she has to find a different, full-time job.
Simon-Mishel said her biggest concern is that this is a signal of the unemployment compensation system grinding to a halt in Pennsylvania, which would leave the state's most vulnerable residents in dire circumstances.
Politics: The massive furloughs stem from a political dispute between Gov. Tom Wolf and Senate Republicans.
Wolf had called on the Legislature to pass a bill providing additional funding to the state Department of Labor and Industry, but a bill that would have provided $57.5 million to the department for 2017 never received a vote in the Senate despite passing through the House, 175-13.
State Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, who is planning to run for governor in 2018, has said he took a stand against holding a vote on the bill due to a lack of information provided by Wolf and the department.
Jason High, Wagner's chief of staff, said Tuesday that Wagner would stand by his decision to block funding to the department until Wolf and the department come up with a more defined plan for exactly how much money they need and for how long.
"There's too many unanswered questions," High said. "It's not a good way to do public policy."
Senate Republicans have submitted a request to the state Auditor General's Office to conduct an audit of the department. An audit had been included as a provision in the bill that was not brought to vote.
Wagner also contends that the furloughs were 100 percent Wolf's decision, High said, because the governor could have found the money to keep the employees if he really wanted to.
Cards from Wagner containing $150 in cash were handed out to furloughed workers at the Altoona office as they left on their last day.
Jeffrey Sheridan, a spokesman for Wolf's office, has said that there's not enough money to pay people, as Wagner alleged, and he doesn't know what "bizarre world" the senator is in.
Claims: Peg Moreland, a furloughed employee from the Lancaster office, said she's hopeful she will get her job back, but she's applying for private-sector jobs in the meantime.
She said she hasn't had issues with her unemployment compensation calls because all employees filled out a paper application before leaving and were given a separate phone number to call to ensure that their calls to the center are answered in a timely fashion.
As for those who are still struggling with their claims, Simon-Mishel said she first tells clients to try to solve issues through the website, assuming the clients have internet access.
After that, she said she suggests emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, asking a state legislator for help, going to a CareerLink office or contacting a local legal assistance firm such as hers.