Pennsylvania replaced its 40-year-old unemployment benefits system Tuesday after a years-long process working to implement a more intuitive method of filing. The “outdated mainframe,” which led to a significant backlog of claims throughout the pandemic that persists today, has been scrapped for a “faster and easier-to-use” system, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

L&I Acting Secretary Jennifer Berrier said the new system went live for a soft launch at 3:08 a.m. this morning, and that by 1 p.m., more than 62,000 users successfully filed for benefits. “To put this into context, the same number of people who have accessed the new system within the past 12 hours exceeds the same number of people who would have access to the mainframe in an entire week pre-pandemic,” Berrier said. 

The unemployment system has been under scrutiny across the state, particularly over the last year, as it was swamped with a record-setting number of unemployment claims.

Berrier said it’s an “enormous improvement” over the old system, but the transition did have its issues. She said some users were experiencing an error while trying to create a Keystone ID and that they are working to resolve it. Not only that, but a phone outage interrupted service this morning – unrelated to the new system, but customer service lines were restored shortly after. 

This overhaul comes on the heels of mounting criticism that the department has continued to leave claimants out to dry. The pandemic exacerbated issues in almost every sector, but for those in need of benefits, the overworked system went from being a frustration to a complete failure. Now, when there are still hundreds of thousands of claimants waiting for a determination, unemployment advocates say it is not the time to be making this transition. 

“The timing is terrible given the tremendous backlog they have,” John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, told City & State PA. “If they do not have the capacity to do the job, they need to get the money out and not expect people to carry the burden of their inability to handle the workload.”

Under the new system, all eligible Unemployment Compensation and Pandemic Unemployment claimants will be able to file on a weekly basis. The system was shut down from May 30 to June 8 for new claimants, but L&I said most claimants will not see a delay in their benefits. 

L&I also brought on about 500 additional staff members recently to provide customer service over the phone, which allows more experienced employees to deal with specific claim issues. Berrier said the new system allows information to be uploaded quickly on both the claimant and employer end, and that claimants can utilize a series of 25 workshops to familiarize themselves with the new system. 

Regardless of the changes put in place, Dodd said that those who have been waiting months for a response need immediate assistance. 

“These are not welfare benefits. These are dollars that get taken out of your paycheck every week that are meant to pay for you when you’re out of work. And [L&I is] not meeting that test,” Dodd said. L&I stated that there are about 289,000 claims awaiting determination, but that figure likely includes many ineligible and fraudulent claimants. Overall, more than 94% of claims filed during the pandemic have been paid or determined ineligible, according to L&I. 

Dodd urged the state to give out benefits to anyone who’s determination hasn’t been made within three weeks, and to continue payments until their claim is resolved. He said it’s not ideal to go back and request money from those who end up being overpaid, but it’s better than “having people starve for months on end.” 

While Berrier gave no timetable on when the backlog will be reduced, she said the new system’s “behind the scenes” features will allow them to process claims and deal with potential fraud more quickly.