Of Harrisburg's horrible Unemployment Compensation mess

When it comes to state UC failures there's plenty of shame to go around

020416_depasquale_1200
Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

In the wide, wide world of Harrisburg horrors, the unmitigated mess in Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation system ranks remarkably high.

Even by the so-low standards state taxpayers have come to expect, shrug about, and move on, it’s a particularly ugly example of mismanagement causing suffering.

It’s got political gamesmanship, unnecessary firings, pain and frustration for people with job loss forced to face long delays in seeking or securing benefits.

It shames two state administrations and, of course, our feckless legislature; and none of it should have happened.

It dates back years but came to a head in late 2016 with layoffs of nearly 500 state employees just before Christmas. Nice.

These workers processed UC benefits, and their furloughs (through no fault of their own) caused ripples of aggravation, if not torment, for hundreds of thousands of citizens with claims: 312,000 calling UC centers in January got busy signals 99 percent of the time.

So said Auditor General Gene DePasquale on Tuesday in an audit of the Department of Labor and Industry’s handling of UC funding issues from 2013 through 2016.

At a news conference, he called findings “stunning,” showing “very high levels of incompetence,” including apparently lost money to fix an antiquated computer system, a whopping $178 million that “we can’t identify how it was spent.”

Of course not.

And the system’s old, so vulnerable that a glitch could wipe out data in ways that not only stop folks’ checks but cause their records to vanish.

Whose fault? “Upper management” of L&I in two administrations, DePasquale said.

That would include Gov. Wolf’s labor secretary, Kathy Manderino, and Gov. Tom Corbett’s labor secretary (now Commonwealth Court Judge), Julia Hearthway.

But soooo many others share the shame.

How about with regard to a dangerously outdated computer system? Where was legislative and/or administrative oversight? Problems didn’t pop up overnight.

How about with regard to layoffs?  Where was the GOP Senate? It refused to pass funding last November to keep employees and call centers working even after the GOP House approved the money with an overwhelming bipartisan vote.

And who led the Senate no vote? That would be Sen. Scott Wagner (R., York), who constantly stresses spending accountability, who attended Tuesday’s news conference and afterward said that if this mess was in the private sector, people “would go to prison” -- and who wants to run for Wolf’s job next year.

How about the Wolf administration and the legislature? They collectively contended last year there was no money to even temporarily fund the system and keep workers working.

Nope, couldn’t do it. Hate to lay people off for the holidays, but have no choice.

Yet last week, this same legislature passed by wide margins (and this same governor this week signed) a bill with $15 million in short-term funding that could lead to hiring back nearly half of 488 furloughed workers.

What? State finances improved since the end of last year?

Not at all. Fact is, governors and lawmakers can find money, large or larger, for anything they want any time they want. The legislature “found” $118 million for its “reserve” (read: slush fund). The governor “found” $1.8 million for a consultant to tell him how to get a “sustainable budget.”

The whole mess so far led to ouster of an L&I deputy secretary supposedly responsible for UC programs, and a lawsuit filed by the Wolf administration last month against IBM for allegedly botching a state contract to update UC systems.

But a bigger fix is required.

Much Harrisburg spending has no immediate impact on people's lives. The UC system does. The egregious errors in running it violate basic principles of public service. This administration and the legislature should rush to end that violation.