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Why some are livid about Pa.’s unemployment update


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
June 9, 2021
Frantic filers, governor's race, PSERS 'error,' residency rule, future transit, hard stop, and the great lifeguard shortage of 2021. Welcome to Wednesday.
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At 3:08 a.m. Tuesday, Pennsylvania officially launched its new unemployment computer system, an overhaul more than 15 years and $200 million in the making.

Within the first 12 hours, more than 62,000 Pennsylvanians had filed claims, which the Department of Labor & Industry framed as a success.

But the public told a different story.

Spotlight PA and The Inquirer heard from advocates and the unemployed who expressed frustration as a new wave of problems blocked numerous people from filing for benefits they had already been approved for.

"I was so afraid for this to happen today," said Donna Pfitzenmeyer Swangler, who moderates a Pennsylvania Unemployment Support Group on Facebook with more than 12,000 members. Roughly six dozen people had messaged her for help as of 2 p.m. 

THE CONTEXT: Technology experts and unemployment advocates warned the state that the update might exacerbate existing problems — some heightened by the pandemic, others there long before it.  

In some ways, their predictions proved accurate. On top of growing pains and glitches experienced by some users of the new system, the department’s phone lines temporarily crashed Tuesday morning as many tried calling in with questions.

The phone outage was unrelated to the new unemployment system and affected several state agencies, according to the department. Phones were back online by around 11 a.m.

In the interim, people became frantic, locked out both the online system and the phone lines.

State officials say the disruptions will be short-term and the benefits long-term. Others say the true impact of those short-term disruptions remains to be seen.

"... for me the key takeaway is, do people get paid?" said Julia Simon-Mishel, who leads the unemployment compensation unit at Philadelphia Legal Assistance. "If people get paid and are able to get paid, then those other problems can be taken care of. If people don’t get paid, then I think that’s something we have to really look at."
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"The people have spoken. That’s why it went to referendum."

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) on Tuesday’s party-line vote to end Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic disaster declaration 
VACCINE UPDATE: Philadelphia is offering cash prizes of up to $50,000 to residents who get a COVID-19 vaccine. In addition to $50,000 grand prizes, six individuals will win $1,000 and four will win $5,000 in three drawings happening this month and next, per NBC10. For vaccine providers, use the federal government's online tool, call 1-800-232-0233, or text your ZIP code to 438829 (GETVAX).
» CONGRESSIONAL REDISTRICTING: Join Spotlight PA for a live interview and reader Q&A with Sen. David Argall at 1 p.m. June 18. RSVP for FREE »
Pittsburgh does garden decor differently, as proven by this pic, taken by yours truly in Duquesne Heights. Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us at @spotlightpennsylvania.
DOT GUV: The 2022 election that will determine the balance of power in Harrisburg and potentially reshape policies on everything from abortion to voting rights? That would be the race for Pennsylvania governor. Spotlight PA has a look at the field so far — from the sprawling, hydra-headed Republican roster to a comparatively lonely Democratic crop

PSERS PAY: The state's largest pension fund says it's correcting an "error" on disclosure forms that said its top investment staff were also paid by a firm hired to manage its Harrisburg real estate — the latter a focus of an ongoing federal probe into the $64 billion Public School Employees' Retirement System fund, Spotlight PA and The Inquirer report.

RESIDENCY RULE: Thousands of refugees are ineligible for permanent U.S. residency following a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday. In Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette reports some have been here for decades and could be forced to return to now-unrecognizable countries marred by war, disaster, or political upheaval.

FARE FUTURE: "What will happen to Center City if commuters never return?" Philly Mag set out to answer that question after a year that more than doubled the work-from-home force and fundamentally reimagined American work culture — in some cases for good. Here's how even a relatively small shift in commuter trends could reverberate.

STOP GAP: A court-ordered pilot project aims to find out what happens when Philadelphia police stop using "stop and frisk" tactics, WHYY reports. The 14th District-limited rollout instructs officers enforcing littering, panhandling, and open liquor container laws to say "move along" instead of asking for ID and running a background check
SPORTS LINE: Pennsylvania has pending legislation that would allow college athletes here to earn money from endorsement deals, licensing contracts, and the use of their name, image, or likeness. But Penn State basketball player Myles Dread tells the AP it's unclear if the support is there to pass it.

FINE PRINT: Donors to GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill McSwain's state-level political action committee may not notice pre-checked boxes — the kind used by former President Trump's campaign — that automatically make their donations monthly and larger over time, the Capital-Star reports. 

SWIM SCHEDULE: Before you head for a swim at a state park, know that a pandemic-related lifeguard shortage has some locations operating on limited schedules. Lifeguard certifications were paused during the pandemic, the York Daily Record reports, though the state now says it will cover the $300 fee.

EMERGENCE SEE: Happy graduation to the Brood X cicadas finally coming out of the ground (in big ways) 17 years after going in. The emergence is normally heard before it's seen, but not for one Mechanicsburg Redditor who found a bunch of their empty escape chutes and grabbed a picture.

BRO-TEIN: If alcoholic protein drinks become the next big trend in booze — heir to the hard seltzer throne — an Erie-based company will be to blame or thank. Three young entrepreneurs plan to launch their spiked "Protochol" in the Erie area this summer, WJET and WXFP report.
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.

Yesterday's answer: Unstoppable (also the name of a Denzel Washington runaway-train thriller filmed in Cameron and McKean Counties)

Congrats to our daily winners: Mary Ellen T., Craig W., Dixie S., Neal W., Diane P., Mike B., Susan D., Michelle T., Yvette R., Don H., Judy M., Elaine C., Patricia R., Bruce T., Barbara F., Carol D., David W., Beth T., Becky C., George S., James B., Dennis M., Tish M., Karen W., Dianne K., Kim C., Elizabeth W., Bob R., Lance L., and Jill A.
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