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. ••