Philly’s coronavirus response

What happens after the $600 expires? Here’s the situation with unemployment benefits in PA

Economists say ending the boost could trigger a downturn that would cost Pennsylvania another 250k jobs.

Coffee Creams & Dreams on Fairmount Avenue. Hospitality workers have had to file for unemployment in record numbers.

Coffee Creams & Dreams on Fairmount Avenue. Hospitality workers have had to file for unemployment in record numbers.

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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The $600-a-week federal unemployment benefits boost for workers in Pennsylvania expired on July 25. On Monday afternoon, Republicans in Washington unveiled their plan for a replacement program.

Known as the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, or FPUC, the extra cash for out-of-work Americans was included in the historic $2 trillion CARES Act stimulus. It has supplemented state payouts since the beginning of April, after coronavirus shutdowns led to an unprecedented number of layoffs.

Senate Republicans proposed a second, $1 trillion package that:

  • Awards another $1,200 stimulus check under the same protocol as the first
  • Reduces emergency unemployment payments from $600 to $200 until states can implement a sliding scale system
  • Places a moratorium on evictions
  • Allots at least $100 million for another round of PPP business loans

The GOP is pushing hard to implement the sliding scale benefits system, which would cap emergency unemployment payouts at 70% of a person’s regular wages. Outdated state processes mean it would likely take between 8 to 20 weeks to implement that new calculation, NPR reported, placing more burden on already backed-up systems.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he hopes to finalize the second round of stimulus by July 31.

Such a change would be so burdensome that the U.S. Department of Labor came out against in May, calling it “exceedingly difficult if not impossible to implement,” per NPR.

Right now, between 32 and 36.4 million U.S. workers are either receiving or waiting for unemployment benefits. Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate in June was 13%, higher than the already-steep national rate of 11% — and many residents are panicking at the fast-approaching end for the extra $600.

House Democrats in May passed a bill that would extend those payments through January 2021, but President Donald Trump said he’d veto that piece of legislation if it landed on his desk.

It’s unclear when McConnell will introduce his coronavirus relief bill, and whether it’ll pass before legislators go on summer recess. The House is scheduled to end in-person votes on July 31 (though Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she’ll keep it in session until some kind of stimulus is finalized), and the Senate is off starting Aug. 7.

How did we get here?

At the end of March, lawmakers in Washington D.C. passed a $2 trillion package designed to mitigate the pandemic’s devastating economic effects.

In addition to $1,200 one-time payments for a significant swath of people, or more for some families, plus various financial support for businesses and hospitals, the stimulus provided extra money for traditional unemployment filers, and also extended benefits to people not usually eligible, like freelancers and gig workers.

At the same time, states grappled to manage never-before-seen volume of claims.

More than 737k Pennsylvanians applied for unemployment benefits within the first two weeks of Gov. Tom Wolf’s business shutdown order in March — overloading the system. There’ve been more than 1.8 million unemployment claims filed in Pa. since the pandemic hit.

The surge in claims means that about 8% of applicants — or 90k people — still haven’t received any unemployment payment at all. Here’s a few tips on how to navigate the system.

What did the CARES Act provide for workers?

The initial $2 trillion stimulus was called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. It came with a bunch of provisions but the most important unemployment-related ones are:

  • Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation or FPUC, which provided $600 more to traditional unemployment filers each week,
  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or PUA, which extended unemployment to gig workers and freelancers, and
  • Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation or PEUC, which extends the amount of time someone can collect benefits by 13 additional weeks.

PUA payments range from $195 to $600 a week and will last until the end of December.

FPUC payments in Pennsylvania expired in Pa. on July 25.

PEUC stretches Pa.’s 26-week unemployment collection limit to 39 weeks. Pennsylvania also has its own extended benefits program which adds an additional 13 weeks. That means residents could potentially collect their non-boosted unemployment amounts for a full year.

Who thinks the benefits should expire?

FPUC payments were legislated to end at the end of July. They ended nationwide on July 25 or 26, Saturday or Sunday, depending on when a state’s weekly unemployment calendar begins and ends.

The pricey worker bailout was always a point of political contention. Now, conservative Republican legislators in Washington D.C. say they believe the significant benefits boost disincentivizes work because it’s equal to or more than minimum wage. Democrats, on the other hand, are pushing to extend FPUC payments.

Economists at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank, recommend extending the payments.

The EPI found that there are 14 million more unemployed people than job openings — so ending FPUC benefits would still leave plenty of workers without jobs waiting to receive them.

Without the $600 weekly increase, unemployed workers have less spending money and the EPI predicts the subsequent economic downturn will cost Pennsylvania another 250k jobs, 4.1% of the state’s total employment opportunities.

What else can people apply for?

Pennsylvania officials are urging people to apply for state resources beyond unemployment.

The commonwealth’s Compass website offers information and ways to apply for healthcare resources like Medicaid. A single person must make less than $16,971 a year to qualify for Medicaid. That increases to less than $34,846 for a family of four.

Then there’s the Children’s Health Insurance Program. CHIP is for uninsured children as old as 19 whose families don’t qualify for Medicaid. A family of four must have an annual income of less than $78,600 to qualify, for example.

There’s also food assistance available through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, and utility assistance through the state’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, among others.

SNAP’s income threshold is similar to Medicaid eligibility and to qualify for LIHEAP, a single person must make less than $19,140 a year.

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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