Baer: Pa.'s unemployment compensation mess hurting residents, costing state jobs

Forgive me; can’t stop thinking how profoundly stupid it is for our state not to fix its unemployment compensation mess.

Or how astoundingly short-sighted our government was to allow it to happen.

Or how it continues without much notice and, worse, no creative solution.

I keep hearing from folks affected.

Like Jim Sakal, of Phoenixville. He’s 58. Lost his job and health insurance Dec. 29 after the Malvern natural gas-related firm he worked for moved to Oklahoma.

He’s seeking UC benefits. But the state toll-free number for claims is always busy. He reached out to Gov. Wolf and his state Senator. This week he got a call back with a message advising he call the same number he’s called all along. It was busy.

“How are people supposed to get their money?” Sakal asks. “It’s insane.”

It is.

You may remember last year the Senate refused to move a House-passed bill reallocating funds for UC call centers. So Wolf shut down three of them, laying off roughly half (521) of state workers involved in processing claims.

One of them is Shirley Rodriguez. She’s 56. She worked for the state close to 16 years; laid-off Dec. 19. She has no job. And she and her husband, who was covered under her state plan, lost their health insurance.

“I always thought it was a secure job,” she says, “I was totally caught off guard.”

She and Sakal are iceberg tips. Hundreds of workers, tens of thousands of benefit applicants share their plight.

This comes, ironically, after the state in November extended UC eligibility.

And at a time Pennsylvania’s 5.7 percent unemployment rate is highest among populous states, highest in the Northeast, lower than only Alabama, Alaska, Louisiana, New Mexico and West Virginia.

And at the busiest time of year for UC claims: for the week ending Jan. 14, 31,014 new ones were filed.

So people who lost their jobs can’t get benefits because people who can get them benefits lost their jobs – all, as UC law says, “through no fault of their own.”

And why?

Because four years after money from employee UC taxes was set aside off budget for system improvements, more money was needed since somebody screwed up and not enough improvements were made, and the Senate wants accountability.

Because Republican Sen. Scott Wagner, who says he’s running for governor next year, led the fight and said of the centers: “Let them close down.”

Because Gov. (there’s-nothing-I-can-do) Wolf — who on Tuesday told Pittsburgh’s KDKA radio "I think it’s a tragedy” — says it’s all up to the Senate.

Because the Senate, after a couple months vacation, presumably for members to enjoy their annual automatic pay raises, sits on its hands awaiting an audit of funds in question, which isn’t coming at least until April.

And lost in all this is the fact the UC system has been, to be kind, less than perfect forever. Lost is the fact state officials and lawmakers were aware of snafus in improvement efforts for years.

Where was accountability then? Where was an alternate plan in the event the money in question would not be renewed?

Axing hundreds of workers, subjecting them and their families to needless distress, and unnecessarily torturing UC applicants with longer waits and busy signals isn’t an answer. It’s amputating a limb for an injury in need of a Band-Aid.

I get the mood that government’s too big, too sloppy, overfunded and needs a trim. And I agree.

But when it’s a part of government helping those faced with job-loss, health-care loss, uncertainty and fear? When it’s you or a relative, a neighbor or friend? Surely there are less vital places to trim.

And, in this age of proclaimed interest in government innovation, where are new ideas to avert the stupid and shortsighted?