NORTH VERSAILLES, Pa. — Channel 4 Action News Investigates has learned more than a half-million Pennsylvanians who applied for unemployment during the pandemic have still not been able to get it.For some, long waits for benefits have become long waits to appeal the denial of benefit
John Roman of North Versailles was laid off from his job as a school bus driver in March.Action News Investigates first told his story in April, when he was struggling to get benefits.”You can’t get through. Keep getting busy signals. I tried like four or five hours in one day,” Roman said at the time.
Eventually, the checks started coming. But in June, his case took a twist.The state Department of Labor and Industry sent him a letter saying he was ineligible for benefits and ordering him to pay back $3,000.The reason? The state said Roman took a leave of absence.But medical records show he was hospitalized for acute illness — pneumonia and COPD.So Roman filed an appeal, saying the state decision was incorrect. That was five months ago.
Asked what happened since then, Roman said: “Nothing. Nothing at all.”He’s called the state unemployment office repeatedly. He contacted his state legislator.”Mine’s at the bottom of the pile, I guess,” Roman said.In August, he finally got a callback from the state unemployment office.
An official left a voicemail message saying: “We have received the appeal information however it was not under review so that was a mistake on our part. You should receive information from us soon as again I have escalated this matter to a supervisor.”But Roman did not get a hearing until Monday, nearly three months after he received that voicemail message.”It’s wrong,” Roman said.In yet another twist, Roman was approved for unemployment after first being denied. But the state has been deducting the money he allegedly owes from the amount he is supposed to be collecting, leaving him with virtually nothing.”I could never understand their system,” Roman said.
Top state unemployment officials would not discuss specifics of Roman’s case but they were surprised when Action News Investigates told them how long he’s been waiting for his appeal.
“I do know the appeals office is still on time with everything so depending on the timing of when that was requested and what the actual circumstances are, that probably has a lot to do with it,” said Susan Dickinson, director of unemployment policy.
“John is emblematic of so many people who are so frustrated with the system and don’t know where to turn for help,” said Barney Oursler of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee.
Oursler reached out to help Roman after seeing his initial story. He said the state made a mistake and Roman deserves to be paid.But even Oursler, who helped thousands of unemployed steelworkers in the 1980s, has hit a wall with Harrisburg.
“The system is failing people and that’s the frustration people have,” Oursler said.State officials said 32% of all Pennsylvanians filing unemployment claims during the pandemic — about 600,000 people — have been rejected.
There have been about 43,000 appeals filed.Five months after filing his appeal, Roman said he hopes he can finally get an answer.”It’s been very frustrating. There’s times I just lay down and close my eyes, is it a dream or is it reality? I’m finding out it’s reality,” Roman said.