More than eight months into pandemic, some Pa. gig workers can’t access unemployment benefits

Written by on November 25, 2020

More than eight months into pandemic, some Pa. gig workers can’t access unemployment benefits

By Kate Giammarise / WESA

November 26, 2020

The Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pa. GOV. TOM WOLF / FLICKR

More than eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, some Pennsylvanians are still unable to access the unemployment benefits they need.

WESA’s Kate Giammarise reports that around 500,000 residents use an ancillary unemployment program that’s been riddled with problems.

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Bastian Harris is one of many people who qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance – but they have struggled to get any money.

A self-employed editor in Cheswick, in Allegheny County, Harris applied for the assistance several months ago when a major project was postponed due to COVID-19.

After initially being approved and receiving payments via paper checks in the mail, Harris then received a U.S. Bank ReliaCard, but has been unable to access any funds on the debit card.

This has left Harris, who uses they/them pronouns, increasingly desperate and stressed.

“It kind of kind of leaves me frozen, like, because I don’t want to ask to borrow funds from family, I don’t want to not pay bills, but I know I have to choose and pick. And so, it’s kind of like a wait-and-see, because I don’t even have an end date,” said Harris.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program has been plagued with problems, advocates say. 

Why? For one, states had to build a brand new program in a matter of weeks. That’s because Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is for workers who are self-employed, and so-called “gig” workers like Uber drivers.

Shortly after the program launched, Pennsylvania was hit by a ring of criminals using stolen identities to get benefits.

In June, the state Treasurer’s office announced it would only pay benefits via debit cards as an anti-fraud measure.

That has placed the burden of proof on unemployed workers, says Michele Evermore, a researcher with the National Employment Law Project.

“I mean it’s like you’re guilty until you prove yourself innocent,” said Evermore.

But it’s the card that has been problematic for Harris.

Everywhere they have turned has been a dead end. Trying to get through to someone one the phone at Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor and Industry hasn’t worked. Calling ReliaCard hasn’t helped either. After an internet search about the problem, Harris also tried uploading a selfie with a photo ID, when they read online this was what some people had been required to do.

“It’s been a major disaster,” said Barney Oursler.

Barney Oursler is the director of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee. He has been helping laid-off workers since the days of the region’s mass steel layoffs in the 1980s. Oursler says the system’s problems are being compounded by the fact that people like Harris can’t reach anyone at the state Department of Labor and Industry to straighten things out.

“It’s damn, damn near impossible to get through on the phone. And again, if you email UChelp@PA.gov, it’s going to tell you, that for sure, you’re not going to hear from them for two to four weeks, and that’s a very optimistic estimate from what I’m hearing and experiencing.”

Advocates say bureaucratic problems combined with anti-fraud measures have hurt jobless people who need money now.

Eventually Harris turned to their elected officials.

State Senator Lindsey Williams, whose office is trying to assist Harris, says she and other elected officials have been inundated with calls.

“It’s a huge problem. My office is getting 150 to 175 calls a week on unemployment issues. It’s 75 to 80% of the calls we get, and our call volume is up probably two times what it was prior to the pandemic,” said Williams.

Even a reporter’s efforts to get to the bottom of Harris’ case show how difficult it is to navigate the maze of government agencies and contractors involved.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Labor and Industry would only answer questions about the anti-fraud measures. The agency referred all questions about the debit cards to the state Treasury. The state Treasurer’s office said Harris’ problem should have been resolved through U.S. Bank.

After a reporter’s inquiry, U.S. Bank says they reached out to Harris directly, and after weeks of trying, they were finally able to access their funds on Tuesday.

Advocates believe thousands of other Pennsylvanians are still struggling to get theirs.

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