A long-delayed upgrade to Pennsylvania’s IT system for unemployment benefits made a problem-filled debut on Tuesday, frustrating some jobless workers and confirming concerns from critics who feared the new system would give way under strong demand fueled by the pandemic.
In the first 12 hours after launch, more than 62,000 Pennsylvanians had filed complaints, officials said, and the Department of Labor and Industry deemed the new system a success.
At the same time, unemployment advocates and dozens of unemployed Pennsylvanians expressed frustration as a new wave of problems prevented many people from applying for benefits for which they had already been approved.
Some people who were receiving benefits under the old system last week were told that they were not eligible. Others were denied benefits because they had been wrongly identified as being in prison. Still others have seen their payments halted due to overpayments that had long been settled. Some eligibility notices were dated from the future. And a new password requirement, an issue advocates anticipated weeks ago and raised with state officials, has kept many people out of the system.
“I was so scared that this would happen today,” said Donna Pfitzenmeyer Swangler, who moderates a Pennsylvania Unemployment Support Group on Facebook with over 12,000 members. About six dozen people had texted her asking for help at 2 p.m. as she simultaneously attempted to answer questions posted on online message boards.
“They absolutely shouldn’t have done this right now with the number of people still clamoring,” she said. “There is just more potential for problems and different things to arise. They should have waited.
The overhaul of the computer system took more than 15 years and $ 200 million in preparation. It’s been hailed by the state as a necessary solution to the decades-old mainframe infrastructure, which officials described as slow, unintuitive, and seemingly taped off.
However, state modernization efforts have been marked by failures, delays, waste and litigation.
Although the state claims to have carried out extensive internal testing, only five members of the public, five members of the legislative staff and five members of the employer community had tested the new software as of mid-May.
Advocates had asked the state to delay the launch until fewer people affected by the pandemic are dependent on it. Tech experts said the durability of the hardware had been misinterpreted by the state and the nature of the redesign – a ‘flip the switch’ approach – was about to fail.
April unemployment figures show up to one million Pennsylvanians can still count on federal and state benefits. The new computer system, which only processes state unemployment benefits, was built by the same contractor, Geographic Solutions Inc., or GSI, which manages the technology for paying federal benefits in the event of a pandemic. Its technology has a poor track record in Pennsylvania and other states.
GSI did not respond to questions on Tuesday, but spokesperson Michelle Griffith previously praised the company’s work in other states and its willingness to launch the new system in Pennsylvania.
In January, following a new federal funding program, it took weeks for the state and the GSI to put in place new rules associated with federal benefits. And, as a result, many requests from eligible people were stuck for months, many of which were wrongly flagged for fraud or missing information. More than 300,000 people are in a backlog waiting for their state and federal claims to be reviewed and paid or denied.
“It’s like the PUA of January [federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] launch, ”said Pfitzenmeyer Swangler. “It was really bad too and I replied non-stop for a week to the messages.”
Pfitzenmeyer Swangler said the new issues would only add to the backlog.
To make matters worse, the department’s phone lines temporarily went down on Tuesday morning. The phone outage was unrelated to the new unemployment system and affected several state agencies, the department said. The phones were back online around 11 a.m.
But in the meantime, people have become frantic, shut out both from the online system and from the phone lines. State officials said people were placed in an online waiting room, triggered by a large number of people using the system, although the exact number is unknown.
Acting Labor Secretary Jennifer Berrier could not say exactly how many people must be using the system for the waiting room feature to kick in. She admitted that the servers were running slowly because around 10 times as many people were logging in during the system launch. The state had taken the old central system offline on May 31, preventing the filing of new claims and temporarily blocking workers’ access to the recurring filing for several days before the launch.
Julia Simon-Mishel, who heads the Unemployment Compensation Unit at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, said workers were having difficulty loading system web pages due to heavy traffic. She is also concerned that some people’s data was transferred incorrectly from the old system.
“For me, the key to remember is: do people get paid? ” she said. “If people aren’t getting paid then I think that’s something we really need to look at.”
Simon-Mishel said those who can afford the wait should give the state a few days to fix the issues and then go online. She noted that workers can again file complaints by phone starting Thursday if they still have problems.
Ministry officials said they identified two areas where several users were having problems. Workers who receive benefits through direct deposit have had their payment method listed as a “debit card,” what the ministry called a “display problem.” Users don’t need to take action to fix this problem, department officials said.
A small percentage of users also had problems signing in or changing payment type. A fix for this “server connectivity” issue is in progress, according to the department. Several workers on Facebook reported other issues, such as jobless claims that were wrongly identified as inactive.
“Whoever is in charge of this circus should be made redundant and have to register as unemployed,” one person wrote on Facebook, noting that the new system “could not be more confusing.”
Nadia Warrick, former facilities manager for Feasterville, said she couldn’t log into the new system on Tuesday to claim this week’s benefits. Her computer screen went blank when she tried to confirm that she was not a robot. When she tried again later, she was told that the new username and password she had just created were incorrect.
“Every time a new system is deployed, you’re going to have the hiccups,” Warrick said. “But at the same time, I would think that, being so far into this pandemic, they would have built this new platform in the background and tested it and made it foolproof for all of us here in Pennsylvania, who really matter. on these funds.
Others had a smoother experience. Gennifer Spangler, a former warehouse manager for an online craft supply store, said signing in and filing a claim was “super easy.” She said the new system was more user-friendly, with a dashboard that made it easier to find and update information.
Still, tech experts warn that even indications of a soft launch can mask deeper issues that need to be addressed later.
“One of the dangers of changing in a weekend is that at first glance everything worked,” said Waldo Jaquith, a government technology expert who works at the University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation. of Georgetown. “This is not the case.”
“If I can find someone who can bet against me, I will,” he said. “But I never do.”