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High anxiety as Pa.’s jobless system overhaul begins


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
June 1, 2021
High anxiety, math problems, missed votes, 'safe haven,' impeachment threats, budget surprise, and a runaway alligator. <Checks calendar> It's Tuesday.
This week, Pennsylvania's 60-year-old unemployment benefits computer system will temporarily go dark as officials upgrade to a new, cloud-based program.

The overhaul, nearly two decades in the making, is being hailed by the Wolf administration as the long-awaited fix to problems that have stymied claimants during the pandemic and for years before it.

But Spotlight PA reports technology experts and unemployment advocates are questioning the timing with so many Pennsylvanians still relying on the benefits. They also warn it could exacerbate existing problems and divert resources from those who are still stuck in a backlog.

"It just introduces this immense new volume of problems into a system that is already overwhelmed with problems," said Sharon Dietrich, a lawyer with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.

THE CONTEXT: Fourteen months into the pandemic, at least 212,600 people are relying on state unemployment benefits, and an average of more than 22,000 new claims have been filed each week for months.

The overhaul of the state's unemployment benefits computer system will result in residents being unable to file new state unemployment claims from May 31 through June 7. People with continuing claims will not be able to file from June 3 through June 7. The new system is expected to be up and running June 8.

William Trusky, the state’s deputy secretary for unemployment compensation programs, said he anticipates minimal benefit disruption but acknowledged, "There will be bumps in the road."

Advocates argue there have been plenty of pandemic-era bumps already and that anxiety about the upgrade and any possible disruptions is high, along with the stakes for many Pennsylvanians and their families.

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"White supremacists are out there, in police departments, and there's no telling how much damage someone like that can do."

—Retired Pittsburgh Police Chief Robert McNeilly on white supremacists and extremists infiltrating police departments nationwide
VACCINE UPDATE: Pennsylvania has lifted all COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants, gatherings, and businesses and will lift its mask mandate on June 28 or when 70% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated — whichever comes first. For vaccine providers, use the federal government's online tool, call 1-800-232-0233, or text your zip code to 438829 (GETVAX).
Remember that photo of robin eggs submitted by reader Neal W. and featured here a few weeks back? Well, they finally hatched, and Neal was kind enough to send an update from Shady Grove. Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us at @spotlightpennsylvania.
BAD MATH: The financial miscalculation that touched off a scandal surrounding Pennsylvania's $64 billion public school employee pension fund involved "data corruption" in a single month over a nearly decade-long period reviewed. Documents reveal a fund consultant, Aon, blamed its clerical staff for inputting bad data. Spotlight PA and The Inquirer report while the error was technically small, the fallout continues to grow.

NO VOTE: Outgoing U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) missed last week's vote on the creation of a 9/11-style commission to probe the Jan. 6 Capitol breach, the Associated Press reports, making him one of nine Republicans not to cast a vote. Toomey cited an unspecified family commitment but said he would've voted yes. The proposal fell six votes short of the 60-vote, filibuster-proof threshold needed to pass.

'SAFE HAVEN': A Pennsylvania religious sect known for MAGA politics and armed worship has purchased a compound in Texas it's billing as a safe haven ahead of a looming "deep state" war, VICE reports. The Wayne County-based church has spent years expanding its footprint, along with the reach of its radical and militant teachings.

IMPEACHMENT TALK: Pennsylvania House Republicans want to impeach two Democratic elections officials who voted to count undated mail ballots from last month's primary, saying "failure to promptly conform to [state] law" leaves them no choice. The Inquirer calls it a rare move and a "major escalation" in conflicts over how elections are run.

SPENDING VS. SAVING: Pennsylvania lawmakers are a month out from the state budget deadline and newly flush with cash, the Capital-Star reports. Stronger-than-expected sales tax receipts, state revenues ahead of projections, and billions in federal stimulus cash have lawmakers debating spending vs. saving with a predictable party-line split. 
ALLIGATOR CLIPS: Oscar the alligator has been found days after giving its owner the slip and sliding into the Susquehanna River in York County, FOX43 reports. The gator's float-your-fanny-down-the-Susquehanny sojourn prompted plenty of sightings and social media posts.

WORLD RECORD: A Philadelphia teacher's 6,509-square-foot drawing is waiting for the Guinness Book of World Records to certify its top-dog status. Teacher Dyymond Whipper-Young is letting students color the massive sketch in the meantime, via WHYY.

TALKIN' BASEBALL: Johnstown has a new independent baseball team called the "Mill Rats," and the Tribune-Democrat Johnstown has photos from last week's inaugural game at Sargent’s Stadium. The team picks up where The Johnstown Johnnies left off after disbanding in 2002.

FISH TRY: If you missed your chance at one of Pennsylvania's free fishing days over the weekend, there's another coming up on July 4, when the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission will again waive its fishing license rules, per WPXI.

POLITICAL HUMOR: "Why are fish so political?" State Rep. Jordan Harris (D., Philadelphia) has the punchline to that joke and others in a TikTok video made all the more convincing by his cackle and furniture slapping.
Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

Friday's answer: International

Congrats to our weekly winner: Carol D.

Congrats to our daily winners: Mary Ellen T., Becky C., Ted N., Craig W., Susan D., Neal W., Dixie S., Craig E., Meg M., Tracy K., Lex M., Irene R., David I., Diane P., Russellen C., Beth T., Suzanne S., Al M., Christine M., Mike B., Bob R., Don H., Brandie K., Kim C., Elaine C., Dennis M., Patricia M., George S., Michelle T., Gwen B., Kevin H., Karen W., Bruce T., Tish M., Bill C., Kathy B., Christine M., Chris M., Ann and John P., James B., Elizabeth W., Jay H., Johnny C., Kathleen L., Anne R., William M., Carl K., and Brian B.
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