Report: Most states are weeks late in paying unemployment benefits. How did Pa. do? | Monday Morning Coffee

December 7, 2020 7:15 am

Jobless workers demonstrate in Miami Springs in support of continued federal unemployment benefits in the pandemic economy. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Good Monday Morning, Fellow Seekers.
With millions out of work, states have been swamped with unemployment claims. Officials in each state are dealing with the challenge in different ways, from hiring new staff to entering into agreements with contractors. And as our friends at Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts. note, it’s an issue that the incoming Biden administration has made a priority.

As of Nov. 1, all but three states were struggling to meet a 15-year-old federal mandate requiring states to send out benefits within three weeks. There’s no penalty for failing to meet that threshold, but states are supposed to have plans in place to address it, Stateline reported.

States have a legal duty to pay benefits on time, Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the progressive Century Foundation and co-author of an October report on state unemployment systems, told Stateline. Some advocates have gone to court to force payments and press for change.

“The inability of states to climb out of the hole of untimely payment is an example of the system failures exposed by COVID-19,” Stettner told Stateline. “The federal government ought to be pressing them to understand their backlog and bottlenecks and coming up with solutions.”

Before the pandemic, almost every state was at or above the 87 percent threshold, Stateline reported. North Carolina had the lowest rate at 79.6 percent. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia paid 90 percent or more of claims within three weeks; now none of them does.

South Dakota had the lowest timeliness rate, with only 18.8 percent of payments going out within three weeks, with Kentucky (27.1 percent) and Maryland (27.9 percent) next. The rate was less than half for 14 states, including New York and California, Stateline reported.

Kentucky and Pennsylvania, which both wrestled with long processing times, hired the mega-accounting firm Ernst & Young to help them move through claims and settle disputes, Stateline reported. The results were mixed: Even with outside assistance, Kentucky’s three-week payment rate declined steadily from 92.5 percent in April to 27.1 percent in October, Stateline reported.

In Pennsylvania, where the unemployment rate stood at 7.3 percent in October, the most recent time frame for which data were available, not quite half of all applicants (47.8 percent) were receiving benefits within that three-week window, Stateline reported.

Meanwhile, benefit applicants, such as Kathleen Kroeger, a South Dakotan who lost her job during the pandemic, have been struggling to get by, and aren’t getting much satisfaction from state governments.

“I must have talked to 35 people. It’s always the same story—‘It’s on somebody’s desk, they’re going through them all, they’ll let you know,’” Kroeger, who depleted her savings and borrowed money from her family before finding another job in August, told Stateline. She first applied for benefits in early May.

Further complicating matters is the fact that federal pandemic unemployment assistance programs are set to expire later this month. And while Washington appears to be creeping toward a consensus, with Democratic congressional leaders backing a $908 billion relief plan as a starting point for talks, the meter is running.

Last week, officials at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry called on the U.S. Senate to extend the pandemic relief programs for the jobless, calling them a critical lifeline for both the unemployed and the businesses who see benefit from people spending their checks.

“To allow tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians and millions of Americans to lose their income during a global pandemic in the middle of winter and the holiday season is beyond cruel,” Labor & Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak said in a statement. “L&I is working with our partners to identity other state programs and assistance for out-of-work Pennsylvanians with urgent needs, such as food and housing. But Pennsylvania needs the U.S. Senate to extend the PUA and PEUC programs before Dec. 26 by passing an extension through legislation, such as the HEROES Act.”

On Friday, Democrats in the state Senate said Pennsylvania shouldn’t wait for Washington to act, as they rolled out a $4 billion, debt-funded stimulus program that includes $1 billion to help the jobless. The state’s business community already has come out in opposition, arguing Democrats should instead back liability protections for business that Gov. Tom Wolf recently vetoed.

“To move Pennsylvania forward, our elected officials can’t operate in a vacuum and offer one-off solutions.  We need to take a global approach in identifying what these industries need in order to survive and overcome the challenges brought on by the pandemic,” Gene Barr, the president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business Industry said in an email. “Targeted liability protections are at the top of the list.”

Speaking to journalists last week, Senate Democrats said their package delivered $800 million in aid to business, including $300 million in assistance to restaurants, bars, and tavern owners who have seen their business decimated by the pandemic. But, they argued, the state also needed to deliver direct aid to people who are struggling now.

“Folks have not seen pandemic-specific relief from the state or federal government since last spring, yet thousands remain unemployed, underemployed and struggle with their housing and utility bills. This cannot go on any longer,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said in a statement.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
The average consumer will drop about $650 in gifts for family, friends, and co-workers this holiday season, Cassie Miller reports in this very festive edition of The Numbers Racket.

Uniontown’s Mary House provides assistance and structure for women transitioning from such difficult situations as homelessness and addiction. In this morning’s installment of Helping the Helpers, our partners at the Uniontown Herald-Standard highlight those efforts — and explain what you can do to help.

Our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper introduce you to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judges who sided with the Trump campaign — and who later found themselves overruled.

On our Commentary Page this morning, opinion regular Dick Polman says Trump administration COVID adviser Scott Atlas may have left the White House, but he still has blood on his hands.

En la Estrella-Capital, con una elección apenas terminada, los legisladores estatales buscan hacer soluciones antes de la siguiente, por Stephen Caruso.

U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa. (U.S. House photo)

The U.S. Supreme Court has moved up the deadline for state officials to respond to a lawsuit filed by U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-16th District, claiming Pennsylvania’s mail-in balloting law is unconstitutional, the Inquirer reports.
U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-14th District, is really leaning into the whole conservative firebrand shtick, the Post-Gazette reports.
Harrisburg’s residents say the city’s new comprehensive plan is shot through with the same racial and economic inequalities that were a problem in the first place, PennLive reports.
The Morning Call takes up the question of whether the U.S. will ever have a national COVID-19 testing strategy.
State Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Luzerne, tells the Citizens-Voice that his name was mistakenly added to a letter calling on Congress to topple the election results.

Here’s your #Harrisburg Instagram of the Day:

The Sisterly Love Citywide Food Fair promotes women-owned businesses in Philadelphia, WHYY-FM reports.
Voters in Western Pennsylvania spoke to WESA-FM about the election results — and what comes next.
GoErie looks at efforts to legalize recreational, adult-use cannabis in Pennsylvania.
PoliticsPA runs down last week’s winners and losers in state politics.
Politico profiles U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., 
who’s serving as the Biden transition’s ‘ambassador’ to the GOP.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the Trump campaign’s legal mouthpiece, has been hospitalized for COVID-19NYMag’s Intelligencer reports.

What Goes On.
11:30 a.m.:
 State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine holds an online briefing to talk about COVID-19 and flu season.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to ex-journo, and longtime reader, Denny Bonavita, who celebrates today. Belated best wishes go out to PennLive’s Chris Mautner, who celebrated on Saturday. Congrats, gents.

Heavy Rotation.
We trimmed the tree and hung the decorations at the Micek household over the weekend. And we play this tune to get things rolling every year. From our house to yours, here’s The Waitresses with the amazing “Christmas Wrapping.”

Monday’s Gratuitous Soccer Link.
The Guardian went to this weekend’s pandemic North London Derby between Spurs and Arsenal, and says face masks and temperature checks are the new normal for supporters attending the match. Only 2,000 supporters, who applied via a lottery, were allowed to attend during the first weekend fans were again allowed into stadiums, the newspaper reports.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.