Changed rules for jobless pay exclude some workers
February 2, 2016 12:12 AM
Mark Lennihan/Associated Press
The state Labor Department estimates that eligibility requirements are excluding between 50,000 and 100,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians who would have received unemployment pay prior to 2013.
By Daniel Moore / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Amid the sharp downturn in the steel industry and the closure of several power plants in southwestern Pennsylvania, work has been steadily disappearing for Keith Evans. The 53-year-old boilermaker from Brookline is called on intermittently for jobs related to maintenance at industrial facilities.
But the state won’t let him collect unemployment compensation as he scours for jobs. Thousands of seasonal workers were ruled ineligible to receive jobless pay under cost-cutting measures put into effect in January 2013 under former Gov. Tom Corbett.
Although the intention wasn’t to exclude such workers, efforts in Harrisburg to bring some of them back into the fold haven’t worked yet.
As Pennsylvania today releases data on a generally improving local workforce and job statistics, it will miss this subset of the labor force that worker advocates and state lawmakers say has been squeezed since Pennsylvania changed the rules for collecting unemployment compensation.
The move was touted as a way to help the state pay back $4 billion it borrowed from the federal government during the Great Recession to pay jobless benefits. Mr. Corbett estimated 40,000 workers would be excluded — less than 10 percent of the population collecting unemployment pay at that time — and it would save the state $276 million each year.
The state labor department estimates the eligibility requirements are excluding between 50,000 and 100,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians who would have received unemployment pay prior to 2013. That’s at least a third of the 145,328 people statewide who were eligible for and received unemployment benefits for the week ending Dec. 26, 2015.
The most recent numbers show that the change saved the state $148 million in 2014.
The eligibility change, known as Act 60, lowered the portion of annual income — from 63 percent to 50.5 percent — that a worker could make in one quarter of a calendar year and still remain eligible for benefits.
In other words, a road construction worker who makes about $30,000 from jobs during the summer months would now have to earn at least $30,000 more total during the rest of the year to qualify for unemployment.
The idea was to exclude workers who aren’t actively attached to the labor force, such as seasonal amusement park workers, ice cream dippers and lifeguards.
Often, jobs for construction and maintenance are not distributed in such a way that allows workers to spread income throughout the year, said Regis Ryan, a business agent at Steamfitters Local Union No. 449. Steamfitters, like boilermakers, are called in by owners of industrial plants during a plant shutdown for construction or maintenance.
“The owner is extremely anxious to get everything back online because that’s how they make money,” Mr. Ryan said. “If there are repairs to be made, you’re working around the clock and you’re working a ton of hours.”
When the job is over, Mr. Ryan said, the option to apply for unemployment has always been a last resort to working another job, even if that means traveling to Ohio or West Virginia. Working another job puts money toward health care and pensions, he said, while unemployment pay from the state does not.
Weekly unemployment pay ranges from $35 to $573, paid to workers with salaries ranging from $3,248 to $57,000 and above.
Mr. Ryan said the building trade unions had told the state they would be willing to pay slightly higher unemployment premiums — it would amount to about a penny an hour — to help shore up the fund. But Republican state lawmakers balked, viewing that as raising taxes on the workers.
Boilermakers are relatively more limited than steamfitters and other construction workers who, in addition to industrial plants, can work on a wide range of commercial buildings.
Mr. Evans relies on performing maintenance on electric power plants, which schedule routine shutdowns during the spring and fall because that’s when the weather is mild and demand for power most predictable. Seasonal shutdowns at power plants usually last six to 12 weeks.
“Normally, I wouldn’t have any trouble,” said Mr. Evans, who noted that none of his fellow boilermakers have been able to collect either.
With the shutdowns of Hatfield’s Ferry, Mitchell and Elrama power plants, he said, the past year has been the slowest since he began working in 1999. He last worked in October during a maintenance outage at the Keystone Generating Station, near Shelocta in Armstrong County.
There will likely be a few jobs coming up in March, he said, and workers are keeping a hopeful eye on Royal Dutch Shell’s proposed petrochemical plant in Beaver County.
Until then, he’ll be “relying on family” to get by, he said.
State lawmakers in recent years have tried and failed to restore the benefits, calling construction and maintenance workers an “unintended consequence” of the law. State Rep. Marc Gergely, D-Allegheny, introduced a bill to reintroduce benefits in 2014.
The change in eligibility “was intended to reduce eligibility for workers who are not attached to the workforce, but has in fact had the opposite effect,” Mr. Gergely said when the bill was introduced. “It has penalized workers who work too much.”
His bill failed to pass the House Labor and Industry Committee, and no similar legislation appears to be in the works this year. Mr. Gergely could not be reached for comment Monday.
Another bill, House Bill 319, was amended in December to revise the portion of annual income allowed in one quarter to 42 percent, from 49.5 percent. It’s in the House Appropriations Committee.
The state fully paid back its debt to the federal government through a bond sale in 2012 and 2013. As of the end of January, the state’s unemployment trust fund had a surplus of $775 million, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
Sara Goulet, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, said, “The department has been supportive of an Act 60 fix to bring more seasonal workers back into the unemployment compensation system” while ensuring the fund remains solvent.
Daniel Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.
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