Millions of busy signals, hours on hold: House hearing exposes ugly truth of unemployment calls

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Losing a job is stressful enough, but the people in Pennsylvania who are supposed to help have only added to the anxiety in recent months.

Labor and Industry Secretary Kathy Manderino testified before a House committee Wednesday and admitted there have been 4.6 million busy signals to the Unemployment Compensation system since January. The average wait time for callers looking for help is one hour, 11 minutes and 53 seconds.

It’s all fallout, she says, from closing three Unemployment Compensation call centers in December and laying off 499 employees. She says the closings and firings are due to the Legislature failing to authorize $57 million in additional funding before the session ended in October.

“I just apologize to the workers of Pennsylvania because they really deserve to get to their benefits promptly,” Manderino said following a two-plus hour hearing.

On that point,  lawmakers agree.

“The people who have paid into the system are our customers and waiting on the phone an hour is unacceptable,” said Rep. Fred Keller (R-Union/Snyder). “I want to see good customer service. I wouldn’t accept this if I were going to a doctor or if I were going to have my car repaired.”

The roots of the current problem were examined during the hearing and they go back to 2013 when the Tom Corbett administration pulled the plug on an IBM contract that was signed under Gov. Ed Rendell to upgrade unemployment computers.

“That project was 42 months behind schedule and $60 million over budget,” noted House Labor and Industry Committee Chairman Rob Kauffman (R-Franklin).

Also in 2013, lawmakers kicked in $180 million more over four years to complete the job. That appropriation ended in 2016. The House passed $57 million more, but the Senate balked at the extended appropriation requested by Manderino. She says that forced her hand into the layoffs and call center closings.

Lawmakers insist say they didn’t want to throw good money after bad.

“Every IT project we have is over budget and extended,” said Rep. Seth Grove (R-York). “We have been doing modernization for 20 years. Twenty years and it’s still not modernized. That’s Republican governors,  that’s Democrat governors. If the Bull Moose Party came back, we may have the same issue.”

Rep. Chris Dush (R-Indiana/Jefferson) was even more forceful on the repeated requests for money to fix the system.

“Madame Secretary, to me that is blackmail. I felt like we were being extorted,” Dush said.

Caught in the crossfire between who spent what, where and when are call center workers, many of whom were in the hearing room in their purple shirts and union pins.

“I’m hoping I get my job back before my unemployment runs out,” said Peg Storm of Dover, who was laid off when the call center in Lancaster was closed.

She sat through the hearing and the finger pointing and the questioning. She says the answer is clear if lawmakers want to help the unemployed navigate the UC system and improve customer service.

“The wait time is not gonna go down until they put more money in to get us back to work,” Peg said of her call center colleagues.

It was unclear after the hearing whether the Legislature will fund a short-term fix to put call center workers back in their chairs or stall until an audit by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is completed. He’s looking at where all the money went in the pursuit of a computer system. His report is expected in April.

But April is the start of a new quarter when the unemployment claims spike and even more calls come in.

Will anyone be answering them?

Will those wait times be reduced?

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