Democrats seek more support for Pennsylvania workers

Pennsylvania House Democratic Caucus - May 21, 2020

HARRISBURG, May 21 – Democratic leaders said any review of Unemployment Compensation during the current pandemic should be aimed at fixing problems and putting workers’ needs first, rather than simply blaming the Department of Labor and Industry for factors mostly beyond its control.

The House Labor and Industry Committee today received an update on benefits for unemployed claimants from senior leaders in the department including Secretary Gerard Oleksiak.

“The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a sudden, widespread economic dislocation and prevented people from working in numbers never seen before,” said Democratic Leader Frank Dermody. “It’s important to understand how the department is responding to the demand for its services while many people are still waiting for unemployment benefits.

“It’s also clear that after being starved of resources for years the department is doing its best with the limited tools it has and is intently focused on getting people their benefits,” Dermody said.

“We need to get payments in the hands of workers who have earned them,” said Democratic Labor and Industry Chairman Pat Harkins. “I’ve heard from many constituents about their difficulties getting unemployment payments. They are understandably frustrated and I can see why.”

Harkins thanked Oleksiak for answering the committee’s questions and being accountable for his department’s work. Democrats on the committee also lauded the efforts by hundreds of state employees to process millions of initial claims and subsequent payments.

“Unemployment compensation is a benefit that hard-working Pennsylvanians have earned and deserve to collect,” said Democratic Whip Jordan Harris. “Employees are looking to us for leadership, and that leadership demands that we do everything necessary to help the Department of Labor continue to clear the backlog and deliver compensation to those who need it.”

“Laid off and furloughed workers are in need of more than a safety net right now – they need a lifeline,” said Democratic Appropriations Chairman Matt Bradford. “The Department of Labor and Industry understands that and, despite several challenges, has been working around the clock to process claims as fast as possible and ensure workers are provided the benefits they have earned.

“In the short term, we have been assured the department will continue to innovate and streamline its processes to better serve Pennsylvania’s unemployed, and in the long term we as lawmakers must do our part to ensure L&I has the support needed to adequately staff operations,” Bradford said.

Dermody noted that on the same day the labor committee was talking about emergency unemployment compensation, Republicans on another House committee approved a resolution to terminate the disaster emergency declaration that extended special relief to both employees and employers in Pennsylvania.

For the last two months and so far without success, Democrats in the minority sought votes to support people who are out of work and those still working. They tried to increase pay and protections for the thousands of workers doing jobs on the front lines of the pandemic response, including transit workers, grocery store and food service workers, health care workers, police, firefighters and many others.

“This state must stand up for its workers facing the threat of a spreading virus pandemic that has not been controlled,” said Dermody, “and we have to support the people who lost jobs until they are working again. Any delay in that help just adds more problems we don’t need.

“Today’s update from the department indicates that a lot of progress is being made. With that good news, policymakers should work on more solutions in a bipartisan way.”