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Labor Report

Labor & Industry Secretary Informs Committees of Department’s Progress with UC Claims

During a Senate committee hearing on May 5, Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak reported that the agency had processed nearly 1.9 million new unemployment claims since the start of the COVID-19 emergency, despite having lost more than half of its unemployment service center staffing over the last decade due to budget cuts.

The May 5 joint hearing of the Senate Labor & Industry and the Senate Communications & Technology Committees was conducted online due to the state’s stay-at-home and social distancing guidelines. Senator Tartaglione is the minority chairwoman of the Labor & Industry Committee.

Oleksiak testified that the department received almost twice as many new unemployment claims in the first seven weeks of the emergency as it had received in any single year over the previous 20 years. In 2009 at the height of the Great Recession, the department tallied about 960,000 claims.

During the COVID-19 period, the department had received 1.7 million new claims for traditional unemployment compensation (UC), as well as more than 140,000 claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), a federal program administered by the state to help self-employed, independent contractors, business owners, and others who have lost work and are not eligible for traditional UC benefits.

Reductions in the department’s UC staffing dating back almost a decade have made the unprecedented volume of claims a much greater challenge for the department. In 2011, there were 1,410 employees at the state’s UC Service Centers. By the start of Governor Wolf’s first term in 2015, there were 977 employees. Budget reductions adopted by the General Assembly during Wolf’s tenure resulted in an additional 298 staffing reductions at UC centers.

“There is no getting around this labor-intensive process, which we are now doing in historic numbers with fewer staff working in extraordinary circumstances,” Secretary Oleksiak said. “But we’ve addressed the challenge head-on. In seven short weeks, we have adapted and evolved more quickly than at any point in our agency’s 100-year plus history. Despite all the uncertainty in the world and experiencing pressures on all fronts, UC and other Commonwealth staff have stepped up to provide benefits to Pennsylvanians who depend on us the most.”

To help meet the new demand, the department has recruited 70 former employees out of retirement and has reassigned 500 staff from other offices within the department. It is working to hire and train 245 new employees.

In addition, the department has been training PA CareerLink staff to support applicants as they file new claims, and it has launched an automated virtual phone assistant that has responded to about 120,000 questions.

“L&I staff understand the vital role that they play in stabilizing Pennsylvania’s economy,” Secretary Oleksiak said. “They know that there are real people at the end of the process who are looking for relief and they are regularly going beyond the call of duty to evolve, find efficiencies, and improve operations.”

Self-Employed, Contractors, Gig Workers Can Now File for Backdated Unemployment Benefits

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry announced that eligible self-employed individuals who have lost work due to the COVID-19 pandemic will soon start receiving unemployment benefits.

Payments will likely start arriving this week for those who have applied and been approved for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), a program created by the United States Congress in the CARES Act to compensate individuals who have become unemployed due to COVID-19 and are not eligible for traditional Unemployment Compensation (UC).

Individual states are responsible for implementing the PUA system, which is separate from the traditional UC system. Pennsylvania was among the first states to begin accepting PUA applications on April 18.

Now, the new PUA website has been expanded to allow for approved applicants to file their backdated and weekly benefits claims, a process that enables the department to issue PUA payments. The website is now fully operational.

Approved applicants should receive a lump-sum payment within one week of filing their first weekly claim. The first payment will cover all prior weeks of eligibility. PUA claims may be backdated to January 27, 2020, or the first week the applicant was unemployed due to COVID-19, whichever of the two dates is later.

Applicants will not receive a confirmation email after submitting their first PUA claim. All eligibility determination information will be available on the applicant’s personal dashboard on the PUA website.

Payments can be made by direct deposit or to a UC-issued debit card through U.S. Bank. Applicants will choose the method of payment in the initial application.
Unlike traditional UC, which requires biweekly claims, PUA claims must be filed every week. There is a one-week grace period for individuals who miss a weekly claim. The maximum weekly payment (excluding the initial lump sum payment) is $572. The minimum is $195.

All PUA recipients will automatically receive an additional $600 per week in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC). The first FPUC payment will be made one week after the first PUA payment. Moving forward, FPUC payments will be made separately from PUA payments. FPUC payments will be applicable for the week ending April 4 through the week ending July 25. Recipients are not eligible for FPUC payments for weeks prior to their unemployment.

13 More Counties Scheduled to Move into Yellow Phase of Reopening

On May 15, 13 counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania will move into the yellow phase of the Wolf administration’s protocol for easing the statewide stay-at-home order, joining 24 counties in the north-central and northwest regions that have now moved into the yellow phase.

The changes are part of two new executive orders signed by Governor Tom Wolf on May 7. In addition, the governor extended the stay-at-home order for counties in the northeast, southeast and south-central portions of the Commonwealth until June 4, although those areas may move into the yellow phase sooner if circumstances allow.

“The reopening plan prioritizes the health and welfare of Pennsylvanians by using a combination of factors to gauge how much movement a location can tolerate before the 2019 novel coronavirus becomes a threat,” Governor Wolf said. “I’d like to emphasize that this plan is not a one-way route. We are closely monitoring the 24 counties in the yellow phase and will re-impose restrictions if danger arises.”

Under the current planning, all counties in the western half of the state except Beaver will be in the yellow phase by May 15. There are 67 counties in the Commonwealth.

Elected officials in some red-phases counties have urged the Wolf administration to relax the stay-at-home order sooner and have indicated they may implement their own plans to reopen businesses and other public facilities. reported that officials in Lancaster, Berks, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Lebanon, and Schuylkill counties “have all made public moves in that direction in recent days.”

Lancaster County lawmakers reportedly stated in a letter to Wolf, “We prefer to act with your cooperation, but we intend to move forward with a plan to restore Lancaster County.”

The Lancaster County District Attorney issued a notice stating the office would not prosecute citations issued for violations of the stay-at-home order or those issued to non-essential businesses that open prematurely.

Governor Wolf noted in his public statement that businesses and other entities that violate the administration’s orders may be subject to licensing consequences. Employees who feel their employer is not providing a safe work environment may file complaints with the Department of Health, which will refer the complaint to the appropriate investigating agency.

The administration has posted guidance for businesses on the governor’s website.

Businesses that Violate Reopening Procedure Could Lose Insurance Coverage

Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Jessica Altman has reminded businesses in the Commonwealth that they may lose their insurance coverage if they choose not to comply with the three-phase reopening protocol issued by Governor Tom Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine.

The red-yellow-green system was created to meet critical public health objectives. Commissioner Altman warned that many insurance policies contain provisions that exclude coverage for businesses or individuals that engage in illegal acts or conduct. These exclusions may apply to many types of coverage including property, liability, advertising injury, and other essential coverages.

“Businesses and residents rely on insurance coverage to protect them from liability, pay for covered losses, and compensate those who may be injured or harmed,” Commissioner Altman said. “It is the duty of every business and resident in Pennsylvania to ensure that they and the public at large are provided with the maximum level of protection afforded by insurance. Any actions that could potentially create coverage gaps are the antithesis of the civil duty required of all residents during these times of emergency.”

This guidance will continue to apply to all Pennsylvania counties, including those that move from the red phase into the yellow phase. The Insurance Department strongly encourages businesses and residents that have questions or concerns regarding insurance coverage during the phased reopening to contact their insurance carriers.

Answers to frequently asked questions for Pennsylvania businesses can be found in this guidance issued by the Wolf administration.

April 2020 National Jobs Update

The seasonally adjusted national unemployment rate rose to 14.7% in April 2020, up 10.3% from the March rate of 4.4%, its highest level and largest month-to-month increase in the history of the seasonally adjusted series (dating back to 1948 - prior to this time, unemployment was estimated to have hit roughly 25% during the Great Depression of the 1930s). This and the other changes to data noted in this update reflect the effects of the coronavirus pandemic (please see the **footnote on the following page). Over the month, unemployment rolls increased by more than 15.9 million individuals, raising total unemployment to 23 million. Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has indicated that unemployment figures would likely have been higher as of April 2020 if survey respondents had been properly classified as unemployed on temporary layoff.

Over the last two months, the unemployment rate is up 11.2% from its level of 3.5% in February 2020 (which matched the 50 year low seen in 2019) with total unemployment growing by about 17.3 million individuals from roughly 5.7 million individuals in February 2020. For context, the unemployment rate had declined 1.2% with total unemployment down by 1.7 million individuals over President Trumps term as of February 2020. National unemployment statistics for the month are as follows:

  • Total Unemployment – 23,078,000
  • Change Over Month –    UP  15,938,000
  • Change Over 2 Months –   UP   17,291,000
  • Change Over Year –   UP   17,228,000
  • Change Over Trump Term –    UP  15,560,000
  • Rate Change Over Month –    UP  10.3%
  • Rate Change Over 2 Months –    UP  11.2%
  • Rate Change Over Year –   UP   11.1%
  • Rate Change Over Trump Term –   UP   10.0%
  • Rate Change Over Obama 2nd Term –   DOWN   3.3%

As indicated above, total unemployment’s rounded percentage of the labor force, or unemployment rate, rose substantially over the month (rate = unemployment / labor force). The labor force is the total number of employed individuals combined with the total number of unemployed individuals actively searching for work. Growth in the labor force can be a sign of a strengthening economy from more people working and/or more individuals searching for jobs. In April 2020, the national labor force declined by 6.432 million individuals (the largest month-to-month decrease on record), a combination of total employment* falling by 22,369,000 individuals and total unemployment up by 15,938,000 individuals as noted above, lowering its total to 156,481,000.

Over the last two months, the national labor force has shrunk by 8,065,000 individuals (unemployment +17,291,000 & employment -25,356,000) from its level of 164,546,000 in February 2020. For context, the national labor force had grown by 4.899 million individuals (unemployment -1,731,000 & employment +6,630,000) over President Trump’s term as of February 2020. National labor force statistics for the month are as follows:

  • Total Labor Force – 156,481,000
  • Change Over Month –   DOWN   6,432,000
  • Change Over 2 Months –   DOWN   8,065,000
  • Change Over Year -   DOWN   6,065,000
  • Change Over Trump Term –   DOWN   3,166,000
  • Change Over Obama 2nd Term –   UP   3,884,000

Non-farm* job rolls fell by 20,500,000 in April 2020, marking the largest month-to-month decrease on record and bringing employment to its lowest level since February 2011 (series dates back to 1939). Over the last two months, non-farm job rolls have declined by 21,370,000. For context, non-farm employment had grown by 6.815 million over President Trump’s term as of February 2020. National non-farm employment statistics for the month are as follows:

  • Total Non-Farm Employment – 131,072,000
  • Change Over Month –   DOWN   20,500,000
  • Change Over 2 Months –   DOWN   21,370,000
  • Change Over Year –   DOWN   19,420,000
  • Change Over Trump Term –   DOWN   14,555,000
  • Change Over Obama 2nd Term –   UP   10,364,000

*Total employment for labor force provided by U.S. Census Household survey. The separate BLS Establishment survey measures non-farm jobs only.
**Survey periods for data are as of the first half of the month, meaning additional impacts incurred beyond this time are not captured for the month