The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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May 12, 2013

Feds chide Pa. on not paying benefits on time

PHILADELPHIA — A newspaper says federal officials have accused Pennsylvania of “continued failure” in paying first-time unemployment benefits in a timely fashion.

The U.S. Department of Labor also said the commonwealth has been “trending downward” in efforts to get payments to residents on time, The Philadelphia Inquirer said.

“Failure to issue benefits in a timely fashion contributes to the economic instability of customers,” said the March 29 letter from Lenita Jacobs-Simmons, regional administrator for the federal Employment and Training Administration, to Julia Hearthway, secretary of the state Labor & Industry department, obtained by the newspaper through the Freedom of Information Act.

Hearthway spokeswoman Sara Goulet said in an email that first payment timeliness was a high priority but “sometimes that takes longer than we like.” But, she said the department had recently issued a mandate “making first payment completion a top priority” and officials are making progress.

Federal regulations require that 87 percent of first unemployment compensation payments be made to people within eight to 14 days. But the paper said its examination of data indicated that between March 2011 and March of this year, the department complied with those guidelines in just one month (January 2012).

In fact, during the first quarter of 2013, the rate of making first payments within the required time fell from a nearly compliant 86.4 percent in January to 69.4 percent in March, the lowest rate recorded since September 2010, the paper said.

Goulet said backlogs from the recession, federal funding cuts and employers not submitting paperwork on time have all added to the problem. The department has said that increased volume of calls from people filing for first-time benefits has hampered a workforce diminished when call-center workers were fired last year.

But the federal labor department said that issue doesn’t address all of the state’s problems, especially since the volume of calls has dropped with improvement in the economy. The letter also criticizes the state for taking too long to investigate cases in which it wasn’t clear whether a claimant qualified for benefits.

George Wentworth of the nonprofit National Employment Law Project said Pennsylvania demonstrated a “pretty low average” in settling such matters in a timely fashion. He said the state continues to demonstrate “an inability to institute measures that would get unemployed workers their first payments promptly.”

Community Legal Services attorney Sharon Dietrich said the lack of compliance has real-world consequences.

“When the state doesn’t pay benefits on time, people lose their houses,” she said.

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