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If you’re one of the many people chasing info on unemployment compensation in Pennsylvania, communication should soon get better, at least online.

With the state’s phone hotline notoriously hard to get through, the Department of Labor and Industry is bulking up a new chatbot feature. Right now, the website can handle just 500 simultaneous chats, but that’ll ramp up to 50k by the end of the year, a spokesperson told Billy Penn.

The bot upgrade comes as chances of Congress passing a new federal stimulus package remain uncertain because of partisan bickering. Meanwhile, Pa. residents continue to suffer financially.

More than 2.2 million Pennsylvanians have filed for unemployment compensation since March, per state data, plus more than 2.1 million claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a new extension for freelancers and gig workers.

While some jobs have returned, nearly 500k residents are still filing for compensation. And others are just getting laid off now. New claims have held pretty steady in recent months, with 23k filed through the week ending Oct. 3.

Questions about the system abound, and with this many people receiving benefits, the state’s unemployment hotline is overloaded. It currently fields between 16,000 to 23,000 calls daily, said L&I spokesperson Sarah DeSantis.

That’s actually down from this spring. “At the height of the pandemic, we were averaging between 60,000 and 80,000 unique callers per day,” DeSantis said. The elevated demand led to the department hiring an average of 11 new employees per day since mid-March, she added.

The chatbot was rolled out at the end of September as a way to ramp up the department’s ability to respond to the increased demand, she said.

A 24/7 virtual assistant that can answer about 450 commonly asked unemployment compensation questions  — including queries from employers — the bot is an update to the already existing UC Live Chat, which connects users with actual unemployment office staff via instant messaging.

The chatbot has already answered inquiries from nearly half a million people since launching on Sept. 23.

What relief would a new federal stimulus bring?

The many different plans and packages put forth by the federal government have caused technological challenges for Pennsylvania, with the Dept. of L&I continually bracing for change in programs and eligibility.

The $600-a-week supplemental unemployment benefits expired in late July. Unemployment recipients were left with just basic weekly benefits until Washington passed a temporary, $300 weekly payment measure to be paid retroactively. That ran out in a matter of weeks.

As holiday season and a projected second wave of the coronavirus pandemic approaches, Washington is once again negotiating over a multi-trillion dollar stimulus.

After canceling all negotiations via a missive posted on social media, President Donald Trump walked back his statement when it tanked the stock market. He pivoted to a relief plan that builds on one put forth by Republicans in the Senate. It would include:

  • A $400 weekly unemployment boost
  • Another round of $1,200 direct payments without extended eligibility, available only to citizens, “resident aliens” and dependents 17 years old or younger
  • $300 billion for states and cities
  • Business liability protections

The Democrats have a different proposal. Passed by the House on Oct. 1, the $2.2 trillion HEROES Act relief bill would, among other provisions:

  • Renew the $600/week unemployment compensation supplement
  • Send a second round of $1,200 sliding scale direct payments, and extend the eligibility for those payments to non-resident immigrants and dependents of all ages
  • Provide $436 billion of relief to state and local jurisdictions
  • Authorize another round of Paycheck Protection Program business grants

In each case, the weekly unemployment supplements would be applied retroactively from Sept. 6 and continue through January 31.

If a stimulus bill passed, DeSantis said Pennsylvania could implement the program in a matter of days.

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...