Pennsylvania plans to bring back unemployment work search requirements

  • Sam Dunklau

(Harrisburg) –– After more than a year of relaxed rules around state unemployment payments, the state Labor and Industry Department announced Monday it plans to reinstate work search and career help requirements.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, anyone who qualified for unemployment money had to submit proof that they applied for two jobs and at least searched for a third in order to get paid.

In written comments to the House Labor and Industry Committee, Acting Secretary Jennifer Berrier said the agency shelved the requirements in the early days of the pandemic in order to stop people from having to “choose between their health…and their benefits.” The department has kept that up for more than a year.

“By suspending these are other regulations,” Berrier wrote, “the General Assembly and the Governor saved thousands of lives.”

Berrier also told lawmakers the conditions to bring back work searches soon are just about right: COVID-19 cases are declining in Pennsylvania, the state’s vaccination rate is on the rise, and U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is urging states to resume whatever unemployment rules they had in place before the pandemic.

The trouble, she said, has been figuring out exactly when and how to do it.

“I know Pennsylvania employers are eager to return to normal operations,” Berrier said. “However, I will remind everyone these requirements have never been turned off before and never have been turned back on, so this is an unprecedented experience.”

Berrier outlined a plan to slowly phase in all the old work search requirements. Job application requirements will return in mid-July, and then in September, job hopefuls will register with the state’s career help service, PA CareerLink.

To meet the new deadline, people receiving unemployment will have to start looking for work starting July 11 and be ready to submit documents a week later. All kinds of activities can count toward work search requirements, like attending a job fair or creating a résumé with PA CareerLink.

The agency’s website says people out of work can limit their search field to jobs similar to their previous position and those within 45 minutes of their home.

One thing could complicate the rollout: Labor and Industry is planning to launch a new benefits system on June 8. IT workers will have to shut down online access for several days to move data from the 40-year-old system to the new one. When work search requirements are reinstated on July 18, people will have to use the new system to meet them — while potentially still learning how to use it.

Berrier admitted to House lawmakers there could be glitches when the department makes the change. But, she’s betting the lag time between the system’s launch and the return of work searches will be enough.

“We have staff right now preparing for the historic flow of workers who will be looking for services to help them find employment. We are also diligently working to ensure that when these requirements are reimplemented, they do not introduce chaos and confusion into the system,” she said.

House Republicans, who have been pushing to reinstate work search requirements for weeks, introduced a resolution Monday to bring them back immediately. Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre) said last week’s constitutional amendment vote gives the legislature new power to overturn some or all of Gov. Tom Wolf’s disaster declaration, which is keeping the relaxed unemployment rules in place.

It’s set for a hearing in the State Government committee Tuesday.

Philadelphia Unemployment Project Director John Dobbs led a group of a few dozen people who demonstrated during Berrier’s testimony at Monday’s House committee. He said the secretary should instead be focusing on getting back to the more than 40,000 people who are still waiting to hear whether they qualified for payments.

Dobbs pointed to a number of people in his group who say they’ve waited for months to hear back from a L&I representative.

“They’ve got to start providing benefits to people if they do not have the capacity to make a determination in a timely manner,” he said.

L&I said it’s working to hire 500 customer service contractors to answer unemployment questions by phone. As of May 20th, the agency said it hired about half that number. Sixty-eight new intake interviewers, who are in charge of reviewing a person’s initial unemployment claims, started last week according to written comments.

During Monday’s meeting, Republicans like Rep. Eric Davanzo (R-Westmoreland) suggested unemployment payments have been too generous and have kept otherwise-qualified workers from getting back into the workforce. He said the state should provide incentives like hazard pay to employers to then pass on to those hesitant to return to work.

“We should all have the job of our choice, I’m not saying we shouldn’t,” Davanzo said. “[But] the idea of collecting unemployment until that dream job comes along is absurd.”

Democrats like House Whip Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) argue raising the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 per hour would make the difference for those getting unemployment money.

“The real conversation is around the fact that people are making more money staying home…because they’re not being paid enough when they actually go to work,” Harris said.

Dodds said those in his group getting unemployment money are ready to start looking for work when the state requires it again —  but only if they’ll be paid enough to support themselves.

“Make it worthwhile for somebody to come out and work. Don’t make it a starvation wage and starve ’em even worse.”

Pa. Republican lawmakers and the U.S. Capitol attack
As part of WITF’s commitment to standing with facts, and because the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was an attempt to overthrow representative democracy in America, we are marking elected officials’ connections to the insurrection. Read more about this commitment.
Reps. Benninghoff (R-Centre) and Davanzo (R-Westmoreland) are among the several dozen state lawmakers who signed a letter asking Congress to object to Pennsylvania’s legal electoral votes for President Biden, despite no evidence that would call that result into question.
This supported the election-fraud lie, which led to the attack on the Capitol.

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