New Castle News

Closer Look

January 29, 2014

Unemployment change cut off benefits for thousands

HARRISBURG — Millions of dollars in road and bridge projects are jamming the state’s construction calendar, but a trade group warns there may not be enough workers unless the Legislature corrects an unemployment reform passed in 2012.

The reform cracked down on workers who make all their money in a few months, then collect unemployment during the rest of the year.

Under the new law, workers earning more than 49.5 percent of their annual income during one three-month period are ineligible for unemployment. The previous cap was 62 percent — a limit that few people ever reached.

The change eliminated benefits for 41,000 workers, said Sara Goulet, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

Most of those affected didn’t realize it until they tried to collect unemployment this winter, even though the law took effect last year, said Jason Wagner, director of governmental relations for the Associated Pennsylvania Constructors, a trade group for engineers and road builders.

Now contractors wonder if those workers — whose overtime last summer put them over the threshold — will be forced to find other jobs and won’t be around when construction season starts.

“There is a big concern about retaining employees,” said Wagner, especially as the transportation bill signed last fall pours $220 million into road and bridge projects for 2014. In five years, annual spending on roads and bridges is expected to be $1.5 billion, according to the state department of transportation.

A fix to the unemployment benefit problem is headed to the Senate Labor and Industry Committee. The proposal would provide relief for workers made ineligible for unemployment because of their overtime, said Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia County, who was prime sponsor of the original reform legislation.

That remedy will affect 2,000 to 3,000 workers and cost the unemployment pool $25 million to $30 million per year, Gordner said.

The 2012 reforms were meant to put the state’s unemployment system on stronger footing, he noted. Before the law, Pennsylvania paid the second-highest amount of benefits of any state because of its “relaxed” eligibility rules, he said. The state’s unemployment trust fund was insolvent and owed more than $3 billion to the federal unemployment trust fund, he said.

“The unemployment compensation system was set up originally to cover workers as a bridge in between different jobs,” he said. “It was never intended to be a cyclical program for seasonal workers to tap into each and every year.”

Reform had been discussed since 2007, he said, but the system’s problems weren’t resolved until 2012. With the new rules, he said, the trust fund is expected to be solvent again by 2019.

Goulet said changes preventing seasonal workers from collecting the benefits were intended to make the system fairer. “Teachers don’t collect unemployment in the summer,” Goulet noted.

But the rule devastates the road industry, in which workers log long hours throughout the summer to meet PennDOT deadlines, Wagner said. Without a solution, those workers will drift to other jobs or perhaps refuse to put in the overtime necessary to meet deadlines during the summer.

Frank Telesz, business manager of IBEW Local 712, which represents members in Beaver, Lawrence, Mercer and Crawford counties, noted that workers hope to never be laid off.

Those forced to cope with the new unemployment rule could start tallying how much they’re earning during the summer, to avoid tripping the limit later in the year.

“People are smart enough that they are going to calculate how much they can make,” Telesz said.

In addition to road workers, others affected by the change include those who work on maintenance crews and are summoned to work in power plants or factories during shutdowns. Those emergency jobs can mean running up huge amounts of overtime to get the plants back online, Telesz said.

In one union local, 240 of 450 members were ruled ineligible for unemployment because of the change.

“It’s the most bizarre thing they’ve ever done,” said Frank Sirianni, president of the Pennsylvania Building and Trades Council.

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Closer Look
  • phone.jpg Attorney general warns of phone scams

    Assorted scams in the commonwealth have prompted a warning from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane said several scams have been reported to the Bureau of Consumer Protection in recent weeks.

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • disability.jpg Disabilities group unveils new icon

    Disability Options Network is joining forces with the Accessible Icon Project. Officials of the community organization, located at 1929 E. Washington St., said its new icon will replace the current international symbol for accessibility.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • well.jpg Auditor: State doesn’t have enough inspectors to monitor wells

    The state’s 83 well inspectors face a daunting enough challenge keeping tabs on 120,000 active oil and gas wells that have been drilled over the last century.

     

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • vote.jpg Independent hopefuls may widen gubernatorial field

    Just when Pennsylvania voters were getting used to the idea of a gubernatorial election showdown between Republican incumbent Tom Corbett and Democratic challenger Tom Wolf, other hopefuls may soon be joining the fray.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • manna.jpg John K. Manna: Measuring the money

    Should we even bother to have an election in November? By some accounts, maybe the results of some contests are already in.

    July 26, 2014 1 Photo

  • shooting.jpg Man injured in city shooting

    A man was flown to a Pittsburgh hospital Thursday morning following a shooting on West Lincoln Avenue.

     

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • police.jpg Police: Man pulls gun on construction workers

    Construction workers in Neshannock Township flagged down police Thursday claiming a business owner had pulled a gun on them.

     

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Shooting.jpg Shooting witness arrested for giving false name

    State police have arrested a second Detroit area man after questioning him about Sunday’s fatal shooting in Ellwood City. DeMarco Dorian Hoskins, 22, of Highland Park, Mich., was the third man in a private car that transported the deceased to look for a hospital. Hoskins allegedly gave police a false identity when they questioned him as witness.

    July 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • bridgerepair.jpg PennDOT seeks outside help to make bridge repairs

    State officials are poised to sign a massive deal that will enlist outside help to rebuild and maintain up to 600 bridges, marking the Corbett administration’s latest foray into privatizing key government functions.

     

    July 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • GALLO_Natalie.jpg County native plays Clinton intern

    Natalie Gallo isn’t an intern, but she’s playing one on the New York stage.

     

    July 24, 2014 1 Photo

House Ads
Seasonal Content
Section Teases
Must Read
Continuous Super Bowl Coverage