As global cases of the coronavirus are nearing half a million, unemployment claims in Pennsylvania have already surpassed that. 

In the 11 days encompassing the initial days of business closures to stop the spread of COVID-19, from March 15 to March 25, there have been 649,967 unemployment claims made to the state Department of Labor and Industry.

The latest wave of figures were released Thursday by the department.

Local workers helping to guide people through filing for unemployment include Tracy G. Selak, administrator of Cambria County’s behavioral health/intellectual disabilities/early intervention program.

 “Part of what we are doing is trying to help them understand to navigate the unemployment system,” she said.

That’s especially challenging in the current climate. 

“Many people we see have worked, so the concept of signing up for unemployment is unfamiliar. And now all of that is on a massive level. It’s easier to help one or two people understand that process, but it’s a lot more challenging when you are talking about a large volume of individuals that are trying to navigate and understand a new system,” she said.

On the Department of Labor and Industry’s end,  it is also a challenge to receive so many claims.  

“We are working quickly to bolster our unemployment claim operations during this unprecedented time, while serving our customers as effectively and efficiently as possible,” said Theresa Elliott, deputy communications director for the department. 

Pennsylvania has temporarily waived some requirements to make it easier for workers impacted by COVID-19 to file for unemployment compensation. Elliot said applying online at www.uc.pa.gov is the fastest and easiest way to get started. She said the department is working to increase staff to handle phone calls. 

“We are evaluating staffing needs, but first must ensure that our operations strictly adhere to the social distancing and other mitigation efforts in Pennsylvania and around the country.”

Selak’s office also works to provide housing assistance and other needs in partnership with the United Way of the Laurel Highlands, Cambria County Community Action, Catholic Charities, the 1889 Foundation and the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies.  

“Frequently, what we see is people have to make a difficult choice sometimes, and we are talking about people who are (normally) actually out there working. They earn a very minimal wage that gets them by day to day, but if they have a vehicle, if they have a mechanical issue, they have to make a difficult choice – to pay rent or fix car,” she said. 

She frequently sees people in the service industry, including those working in local restaurants.

Many of those workers have been out of work since Gov. Tom Wolf’s recent order to close physical locations of non-essential businesses, which included reducing restaurant operations to takeout only.  

Selak said she has seen the consequences that order has had on people in her housing assistance program. 

“To a certain extent, yes, we are seeing consequences of this,” she said. “I can tell you, we had individuals who we were helping get on their feet, and they were kind of reaching that point and we were ready to ease them off of short-term rental assistance programs. But I’ve had to continue some of that support because right now, they don’t have income coming in.”

Russ O'Reilly is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @RussellOReilly.

 

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