Unemployment benefits end for 86,900 in Pennsylvania

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The year is starting with a social safety net disappearing for 86,900 unemployed Pennsylvanians.

Congress allowed the legislation authorizing emergency unemployment compensation, the federal extension of unemployment benefits, to expire as of Monday.

That means that the unemployment compensation debit cards issued by the state department of Labor and Industry will not be reloaded for people who have exhausted their original six months of unemployment payments.

According to the National Employment Law Project in New York City, the cuts will affect 1.3 million Americans immediately, 86,900 of them from Pennsylvania, which has the fourth-highest total of unemployed workers collecting the emergency long-term benefits.

In November, the unemployment rate was 7 percent nationwide and 7.3 percent in Pennsylvania. More than 4 million people nationwide have been unemployed for more than six months with the average duration of unemployment at 37.2 weeks, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., held a conference call last week urging members of Congress to immediately take up and reauthorize emergency unemployment compensation, which adds 37 weeks of benefits to those who have exhausted their first 27 weeks.

"It was the right thing to do in 2008 under George Bush when the rate was 5.8 percent," Mr. Casey said. "When you consider the economy is still recovering for many folks, we have to keep this program in place.

Sara Goulet, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry, said the average weekly unemployment compensation payment was $341.74 in 2012, the latest figures available, and estimated that it was about the same in 2013. The average time on spent collecting unemployment benefits in Pennsylvania was 17.9 weeks, well below the 27 weeks of regular unemployment benefits, Ms. Goulet said. Those who qualify for the emergency extension average 15 weeks on it before they find a job.

She said the state urges people who have lost their benefits to keep their unemployment accounts up to date by logging on the state's website and registering their job searches so that if the emergency compensation is reauthorized on a retroactive basis, unemployment compensation can be paid in full.

"It's bad timing," she said, noting that the compensation was cut off right after Christmas and when winter heating bills are high. "It's unfortunate, but that's how it worked out."

The cutoff of benefits, which affects more than 6,000 people in Allegheny County, won't likely have much of an impact on the local economy, according to Kurt Rankin, an economist with PNC Financial Services. He said retail hiring has been fairly flat, indicating that people aren't spending much money anyway.

Mr. Rankin also said the number of jobs in the region has fallen in the last half-year. In Allegheny County alone, the number of jobs fell from 634,000 in July to 619,000 in October.

But, he said, the loss of benefits might force more people who are receiving benefits to get work.

"If they were truly unable to find a job previously, losing the source of income won't help because they won't find a job now," he said, adding, "The concern is what kind of jobs are being applied for."

He also noted that people without a high school degree face higher unemployment (10.8 percent nationwide) than those with a college diploma (3.4 percent) so the cutoff in benefits could encourage more people to go to college.

Mark Price, a labor economist for Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, said the idea that people were passing jobs by and holding out for better work was not supported by any recent studies.

The most recent report on labor market turnover showed there were 2.9 job seekers for every available job, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. In March 2007, the spring before the recession began, there were 1.4 job seekers for every job.

Mr. Price said the loss of money both from the elimination of long-term unemployment benefits and the cuts to food stamps are a double-hit for families.

"The labor market remains weak. This isn't going to help, it's going to hurt it," Mr. Price said.

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.

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