Union leaders discuss seasonal worker unemployment

Uni­on lead­ers told three law­makers how changes in the state’s un­em­ploy­ment rules have cut be­ne­fits to thou­sands of sea­son­al work­ers.

Dur­ing a Nov. 21 meet­ing in the Plumb­er’s Uni­on hall on Southamp­ton Road, state Sens. Lisa Boscola, Tina Tartagli­one and Mike Stack listened to a list of beefs about Act 60, a 2012 law that altered eli­gib­il­ity for un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits.

Many con­struc­tion work­ers and uni­on mem­bers in oth­er trades are em­ployed sea­son­ally. Their work slacks off and ends as the weath­er cools. They then be­come de­pend­ent on un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits.

“In con­struc­tion, you work when the weath­er is warm,” Stack said. “Cur­rent law af­fects harshly those who work sea­son­ally. … We need to be look­ing out for work­ing folks and not stick­ing it to them. … We want to go back in­to the law and make it bet­ter.”  

The aim of Act 60 is to re­store solvency to the Un­em­ploy­ment Com­pens­a­tion Trust Fund, which took a huge hit in the re­ces­sion and owes the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment about $4 bil­lion. Part of what it does is re­quire un­em­ploy­ment ap­plic­ants to earn 49.5 per­cent of their wages out­side their highest-paid quar­ters.

Eli­gib­il­ity for un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits used to de­pend on a work­er mak­ing 37.5 per­cent of his an­nu­al wages out­side of the quarter in which he made the most money. Act 60’s res­ult, the sen­at­ors were told, is thou­sands of Pennsylvani­ans don’t qual­i­fy for be­ne­fits. Some of them are denied be­ne­fits for mak­ing a hun­dred or so dol­lars above the cutoff.

“We cre­ated a prob­lem in­stead of fix­ing a prob­lem,” said Shar­on Di­et­rich, Com­munity Leg­al Ser­vices man­aging at­tor­ney for em­ploy­ment and pub­lic be­ne­fits. Money could have been saved by rais­ing un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance taxes on work­ers, she said.

“We could have made a tiny tax a little bit high­er,” Di­et­rich said. “But, in­stead, we changed fin­an­cial eli­gib­il­ity and cut off 48,000 people per year. … That’s enough people to fill Cit­izens Bank Park.”

“This is tak­ing food out of kids’ mouths,” Tartagli­one said.

Stack and Tartagli­one in­tro­duced a state Sen­ate bill that would re­store the pre­vi­ous be­ne­fits eli­gib­il­ity for­mula.

Boscola (D-Northamp­ton/Le­high/Mon­roe counties), chair­wo­man of the Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic Policy Com­mit­tee, asked the pan­el what could le­gis­lat­ors do if they can’t move be­ne­fits eli­gib­il­ity back to its old num­ber. 

At least move it closer to what it was, said Louis Agre, busi­ness agent for Loc­al No. 420 of the In­ter­na­tion­al Uni­on of Op­er­at­ing En­gin­eers. 

Em­ploy­ers might find them­selves short­han­ded, uni­on lead­ers said, be­cause work­ers who know they will need be­ne­fits at one point in the year might leave their jobs when it ap­pears they will be mak­ing too much to qual­i­fy for un­em­ploy­ment.

Steam­fit­ter An­drew Clauson said he had 50,000 hours in his trade, but was denied be­ne­fits be­cause he didn’t make enough out­side his highest-paid quarter.

“Now, I don’t know what I’m go­ing to do,” he said, “and Christ­mas is com­ing up.”

Also at the Nov. 21 meet­ing were An­thony Galla­gh­er, busi­ness man­ager of Steam­fit­ters Uni­on Loc­al No. 420; John Clark, busi­ness man­ager and sec­ret­ary-treas­urer for Boil­er­makers Loc­al Lodge 13; Gerry Gontz of Sheet Met­al Work­ers Loc­al No. 19; John Dodd, dir­ect­or of the Phil­adelphia Un­em­ploy­ment Pro­ject; and Mike Guin­an, Sheet Met­al Work­ers Loc­al No. 19. ••

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