A mural by Michelle Angela Ortiz on the Capitol steps in 2018 Credit: Sarah Anne Hughes / Billy Penn

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Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

Update, Apr. 18: The state’s application portal for self-employed and gig workers is now live.

Hammered by more than 1.3 million unemployment claims in the first month of the coronavirus shutdown, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry says it’s finally catching up to the historic demand.

The flood of claims clogged the system and led to weeks-long delays in normal unemployment processes, officials said.

Despite a phone hotline that seems always busy and an office fielding upwards of 15k emails a day, Pa.’s unemployment system is faring better than others, according to Labor Department secretary Jerry Oleksiak. Nearby New Jersey has even put out a desperate call for programmers who know COBOL, the antiquated programming language on which its system still runs.

“We have not had some of the issues that other states have had,” Oleksiak told reporters during a virtual briefing. “Many states that have old systems, they’ve had a lot of tech issues. We’ve fortunately had very few.”

One month after the coronavirus shutdown created havoc on the workforce, here’s what you need to know about getting unemployment benefits in Pennsylvania.

When will I finally get my PIN?

Approved unemployment applicants usually receive a personal identification number via regular U.S. mail that lets them file for and receive biweekly payments.

It took people who filed for benefits in mid-March upwards of one month to receive mailed PINs, compared to about a week normally. That snowballed into delayed benefits payouts for the swell of Pennsylvanians laid off as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

At Monday’s briefing, labor office officials said that delay should be cleared up.

“The mailroom says they’re caught up on PINs and everything should be caught up on processing going forward,” Susan Dickinson, director of the state unemployment compensation office, said during the briefing. She added that Pennsylvanians who applied for unemployment over this weekend, for example, should receive their PIN via USPS much sooner.

Officials are asking people who have already applied but not received a PIN to refrain from submitting another application because it clogs the system.

Okay, but even with my PIN, the system keeps crashing…

Dickinson acknowledged the system has been crashing for biweekly filing because of high volumes. This should be fixed, too, she said.

If you’re waiting for a call back about issues or problems, add the number to your phone: 1-88-313-7284. As state Rep. Jordan Harris noted, “Some cell carriers block 888 numbers [and] might think it’s a spam call.”

What’s up with this extra $600 payment?

Officials also clarified the coronavirus response Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, or FPUC payments.

Under FPUC guidelines, applicants approved to receive benefits will automatically get an extra $600 each week. If you elect to have federal withholding tax taken from your benefits, your FPUC payment will be taxed 10% to $540.

It won’t show up as an extra $1,200 (minus taxes) with the rest of your benefits, though;  The $600 weekly payment will come separately from regular benefits. Unemployment recipients don’t have to apply again or do anything special to get those funds.

How can self-employed and gig workers apply?

Under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, program, gig workers and self-employed people are eligible for benefits.

Since this program is separate from regular unemployment insurance, Pennsylvania has set up a new portal. It went live on Apr. 18.

To fill out the application, you’ll need documentation of your income. Think tax returns, paycheck stubs, bank receipts, contracts or invoices. You’ll also need some kind of document that shows COVID-19 is the reason you can’t work.

PUA benefits run for a maximum of 39 weeks. Dickinson said that since it’s a federal program, the federal government could “decide that the pandemic was over” and end benefits early.

Who’s eligible under the PUA program?

The state set up a FAQ so you can figure out if the special benefits apply to you.

In general, you’ll be able to file if you are…

  • Independent contrator
  • Gig worker
  • Part-time worker
  • Worker with “insufficient history” of employment for the regular benefits to kick in

…and one of these circumstances is making it impossible or hard for you to work:

  • You’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19
  • A member of your household has been diagnosed
  • You’re caring for someone with COVID-19
  • You’re watching kids all day since they can’t go to school
  • Your place of employment is closed due to the pandemic

A bunch of other circumstances also qualify. Find more info here.

Tip: If you’re still getting a message that says you’re not eligible, try entering your business EIN instead of your personal Social Security number.

How can I reach the unemployment office?

In a perfect world, this guide would be all you’d need. But, clearly, this isn’t a perfect world..

There’s no easy answer regarding how to reach the state unemployment office.

The Office of Unemployment Compensation recommends applicants and unemployment beneficiaries submit questions via email to uchelp@pa.gov because of high call volume. Email volume is pretty high, too. The office website advertises a 15-day email response time.

Dickinson recommended avoiding calling about unemployment benefits on Monday and Tuesday, because they’re the busiest days. You’re more likely to get through later in the week, she said. The number for the Office of Unemployment Compensation is 888-313-7284.

Benefits questions may also be answered by the Unemployment Compensation office’s virtual assistant via 877-978-1295.

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Layla A. Jones

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...