By Ryan Deto
PITTSBURGH — As of Aug. 8, there were more than 133,000 unemployment claims in the Pittsburgh metro area. That is down from a high of nearly 200,000 claims in mid-May, but the region is still experiencing historic levels of unemployment not seen since the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s. In June, the unemployment rate in the Pittsburgh region was 12.5 percent. It hasn’t been that high since 1983.
With so many Pittsburghers and Pennsylvanians out of work during the pandemic, Pittsburgh City Paper has some helpful advice for people applying for unemployment claims. Unemployment insurance is federal money provided to those recently laid off. Both laid-off employees and gig workers who have lost income during the pandemic can qualify.
(Reminder, unemployment insurance is less generous than it was earlier in the pandemic because Congress has yet to pass another stimulus bill that would provide the extra funds. Democrats have passed a bill in the House, but the Republican-controlled Senate has yet to act.)
Ten days ago, President Donald Trump signed an executive order providing an extra $300 per week in federal unemployment assistance with another $100 a week kicked in by states.
Do I qualify for unemployment?
Employees who have been laid-off or had hours cut due to the pandemic are eligible for unemployment. Employees must have sufficient qualifying wages of $116 per week during at least 18 weeks in the base period, at least $1,688 during the highest quarter in your base period, and earned at least $3,391 in total wages during the base period. Remember to use your gross wages, not take-home pay, when applying.
Employees must have a qualifying separation, meaning voluntary resignations will likely disqualify you for benefits. If you did quit or were fired, you and your employer will be given the opportunity to present information on the reason for your separation, and the state department will make a decision on whether you qualify after a fact-finding mission.
People incarcerated after a conviction are ineligible for unemployment insurance while incarcerated.
Veterans and some serving in the National Guard may be eligible for unemployment through the UC for Ex-Service Member (UCX) federal program. Check the Pennsylvania Office of Unemployment Compensation for more details.
What information do I need to apply?
Employees must provide several different personal information identifiers in the claim; some of the personal information is optional.
• Social Security Number
• Home address and mailing address (if different)
• Telephone number
• Valid email
• PIN – Personal Identification Number (optional) — if you have previously filed a UC claim, using your previous PIN can prevent you from having to re-enter information
• Direct deposit bank information (optional) — bank name, address, account and routing numbers.
Employees must also provide information about the employer that they no longer work for, or who has cut their hours. The required information includes:
• Employer’s name, address, and phone number
• Employer’s PA UC account number (if known)
• First and last day worked with employer
• Reason for leaving
• Pension or severance package information (if applicable)
What if I am a gig worker, independent contractor, or worker for certain religious entities?
Gig workers, those who are not technically employed by an employer and instead earn wages through their own business (like independent contracting), but have lost work due to the pandemic, should apply through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program. PUA might also apply to those who do not have sufficient work history to qualify for regular UC, or have exhausted their rights to regular UC benefits or extended benefits. This also applies to some workers of religious institutions.
PUA benefits are calculated based on previous income reported by gig workers. According to the Office of Unemployment Compensation website, “PUA benefits may not be more than the state’s maximum weekly benefit rate for regular UC, which is $572 in Pennsylvania. PUA benefits may not be less than half of the state’s average weekly benefit amount. In Pennsylvania, the minimum PUA payment is $195.”
To file a form for PUA benefits, visit uc.pa.gov and select “File for PUA.”
How long do unemployment benefits last?
There are 26 weeks of unemployment benefits through the initial claim, and people can apply for 13 additional weeks of benefits through the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC). For gig workers receiving benefits through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, those benefits last for 39 weeks.
PUA Benefits will no longer be available after the week of Dec. 25, 2020.
Am I required to look for work while I am receiving benefits?
No. Work search and work registration requirements are temporarily suspended for all UC claimants due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Do I still have to pay taxes on unemployment benefits?
Yes. Don’t assume that the unemployment benefits you receive are just free money. Like most earnings, Americans have to pay taxes on the benefits. If you forget come tax time next spring, you could be due for a big check to pay back to the federal government.
Make sure to save portions of your unemployment payments to pay on Tax Day, or you can check the option when filling out your application that will withhold 10% of your claim for Federal Income Taxes. This question is asked on the “personal information” section of your application.
Why haven’t I received my benefit check?
The state’s unemployment system has been far from perfect. Some people have been waiting months for unemployment checks. According to the York Daily Record, as of late June, only 15% of unemployment claims in Pennsylvania have been paid out. The system, even with an updated online filing system, has been overwhelmed with millions of claims.
CP doesn’t have much advice except for trying to get a confirmation that your claim has been accepted by the state Office of Unemployment Compensation, and then be patient. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer story from July 23, about 90,000 Pennsylvania workers are still waiting for answers about their unemployment claims.
Does taking a part-time job affect my unemployment?
According to the Office of Unemployment Compensation, people may work part-time and still possibly receive an unemployment benefit for the week. The payment amount is determined using your “partial benefit credit” (PBC), which is 30% of your weekly benefit rate. Reported wages must be in gross earnings, meaning the amount you receive before taxes are taken out.
Employees who are still employed but have received reduced work hours due to COVID-19 are eligible for unemployment benefits too. However, if you are still working and you earn more than the sum of your weekly benefit rate and your partial benefit credit as determined by the state, then you are not eligible for benefits.
Need step-by-step help filling out the form?
CP understands that unemployment forms can be complicated and tedious. The Office of Unemployment Compensation’s website offers step-by-step help. Go to uc.pa.gov, click on the “Unemployment Benefits” tab, then on the “Unemployment Guide” button, then scroll down to the bottom of the screen and click on “Step-by-Step Self-Service Guide” link.
Ryan Deto is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.