Work search requirements, digital hearings advance as lawmakers tinker with Pa. unemployment

Rep. Jim Cox, R-Berks, chairman of the House Labor and Industry Committee, speaks at a hearing. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

As vaccination rates creep upwards and businesses reopen, Republican lawmakers have begun to offer changes to the state’s system for paying out unemployment benefits.

The House Labor and Industry Committee did not advance legislation addressing the pandemic’s impact on unemployment from late March 2020 until January 2021, according to legislative records. But since the new year, the committee has advanced three bills. 

In total, the proposals would move unemployment hearings online, increase the amount of time employers and claimants can appeal a ruling from 14 to 21 days, and bring back work search requirements for the 1 million Pennsylvanians receiving jobless benefits.

Under state law, unemployment recipients must apply for two jobs, and conduct one “work search activity,” such as attending a job fair, each week to qualify for unemployment.

The Legislature originally had waived the work search requirement by statute until the end of 2020. But Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has continued the policy in practice since then.

Last week, in a party-line vote, the Labor and Industry Committee approved legislation sponsored by committee Chairman Rep. Jim Cox, R-Berks, to reverse the policy. Republican lawmakers spent the hearing citing anecdotes of “for hire” ads in storefronts and newspaper pages across the district to argue that the time was right.

Cox added that the search requirement was easily met by conducting Google searches for jobs, or by signing up for the state’s CareerLink system.

“I should hope Pennsylvanians aren’t that lazy. I don’t believe they are,” Cox said. “But I do believe there is an incentive for them to not look for jobs, and that’s when the government continues to dole out money.”

Business groups and their GOP allies have pushed for weeks that the $300 a week in extra federal money, on top of traditional unemployment payments, has kept people from returning to work.

Labor economists and Democrats have fired back that slow hiring could be counteracted with higher pay. Experts have also argued that some people may still be worried about COVID-19, handling domestic work including child care, or reconsidering their career choices post-pandemic.

In normal times, the work search requirement — which places the onus on claimants to track their job hunt and not the state — can trap the unemployed, argued Barney Oursler, a former steel worker who now runs the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee in western Pennsylvania.

“This requirement to put in resumes, keep records and at some future date, produce that, seems to us as a set up for folks to be denied benefits,” Oursler told the Capital-Star.

Another proposal, also sponsored by Cox, would mandate digital hearings for unemployment claims. After a state employee makes a ruling on an employees eligibility, both the claimant and the employer have a chance to appeal. At stake for employers is paying elevated unemployment insurance rates. Claimants, meanwhile, are seeking to access jobless benefits they’ve potentially paid into for years out of each paycheck.

The change in hearing venue is backed by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, Alex Halper, the group’s lobbyist, said.

The Department of Labor and Industry already has handled eligibility appeals remotely for the past year due to COVID-19, Halper pointed out. A 2011 state law also was supposed to move away from physical hearings.

“It seems that based on the performance over the past year, it is an approach that makes sense,” Halper said. 

More digital input would be easier on business owners, he added, while the department could develop procedures to make sure evidence is shared with both sides.

But the union that represents the state employees who process and referee claims, Service Employees International Union Local 668, opposes the proposal.

All claims disagreements have been handled digitally since the start of the pandemic. But union president Steve Catanese argued in a May 4 letter to lawmakers that claimants unaccustomed to the quasi-legal structure of the hearings might lose out if they were, in most cases, required to argue remotely.

It’s easier, Catanese argued, for both sides to present their case and any evidence in-person. Referees can also walk an unfamiliar claimant through the process.

The bill passed the House without a vote to spare, 102-99, last week, and heads to the Senate. 

Similar appeals made by applicants for state food and other assistance programs are already handled by phone, a spokesperson for the Department of Human Services said.

All of these proposed changes are taking place as Pennsylvania is preparing to unveil a new UC system. More than a decade and a half in the making, the new software will allow individual applicants to sign in to an individualized portal. 

Applicants can adjust their claim and receive real time updates from the state there.

Labor and Industry Secretary Jennifer Berrier has argued this new system will make it easier for both claimants and the state to process jobless benefits.

But the entire UC system will go down for five days, June 3 to June 7, to bring the new one online, delaying payments.

The new system was also designed by the same contractor that created the online portal to apply for the $300 in extra federal aid for gig workers and the self-employed who aren’t usually eligible for traditional unemployment insurance.

Those who’ve applied for these payments have complained that the system glitches, including overpayments that then freeze beneficiaries out of benefits for months, according to WHYY-FM.

Either way, House Republican Cox argued that the new system should have been designed with the work search requirement built into it.

But Berrier told reporters Monday that “the record keeping has always been the responsibility of the claimant. There is no mechanism in the system for the work search requirement.”

In an email, Wolf administration spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger did not comment on Cox’s legislation, and did not give a timeline for bringing back the requirement.

“Work search has never been suspended before, so there is no precedent for reinstating it,” Kensinger said. “We are working with our partners and stakeholders to determine a best date to restart work search.”

With so many moving parts, and potentially tens of thousands of people still waiting on aid, the sudden legislative interest in the system isn’t helpful, SEIU’s Catanese added.

“If anything, it would be better if [the General Assembly] did what they normally do, and did nothing,” he told the Capital-Star.