When it comes to the challenges that Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation system is currently facing due to COVID-19, Pennsylvania Senate Labor and Industry Committee Executive Director Eric Kratz said there have been more than 1 million initial unemployment claims filed over the past two-and-a-half weeks. In comparison, there were just 750,000 filed throughout all of 2019.

“Certainly, I understand that individuals are frustrated with the delays, busy signals, and general unresponsiveness of the unemployment compensation system, but I ask that you please try to be patient,” said Kratz. “The system is experiencing claim volumes never seen before.”

Kratz was one of three guests helping state Sen. Gene Yaw (R-23) answer questions posed during the senator’s COVID-19 telephone town hall on Monday. Kratz and Yaw were joined by Jason Fink, the president and CEO of the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce, and Dr. Rutal Dala, the medical director of Infectious Disease and chairman of Infection Prevention and Control at UPMC Susquehanna.

According to Kratz, unemployment compensation has become a major issue in light of the layoffs and “non-life-sustaining” business shutdowns in response to COVID-19. That, and the state of the area business community overall, were top concerns among those calling in or logging on to Monday’s hour long session.

Yaw was set to join the Senate’s session following the tele-town hall, where work was continuing to address public meetings, the list of “non-life-sustaining” businesses put out by the Department of Community and Economic Development, contractors, and unemployment compensation, among other issues.

Before taking questions, Kratz encouraged people to file their unemployment claims online if possible due to the long wait times or busy signals via phone and the paper log it creates in case a filing date ends up missed due to the backlog. He added that those with follow up questions should also utilize email (uchelp@pa.gov) as much as possible.

Kratz also noted that there has been a backlog with people receiving their pin numbers in order to file a claim. He said the Department of Labor and Industry Office of Unemployment Compensation is aware, is working to get things out as quickly as possible, and will backdate filings as needed.

“Additionally, I know there has been a lot of conversation around federal benefits, which are forthcoming,” Kratz said. “None of these benefits are yet implemented as we are still awaiting guidance from the United States Department of Labor and from the Department of Labor and Industry to build the programs into their systems.”

He highlighted the three most prominent programs part of the recently enacted federal CARES Act: 13 weeks of extended benefits for those who exhaust their unemployment compensation benefit, an additional $600 benefit on top of regular unemployment benefits that can be applied retroactively to claims starting March 29 and continue through the end of July, and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program that can help contractors or self-employed individuals who normally would be ineligible for regular unemployment compensation, which can be backdated to Jan. 27.

“So the process, when it is in place, is expected to allow for retroactive claims,” Katz explained. “These individuals should not apply for regular unemployment compensation at this time as they will be denied. The expectation is that it will be a separate system that will be put in place to apply for pandemic unemployment assistance.”

In the case of one caller from Buffalo Township, whose husband’s filing came with a response indicating it was “inactive,” Katz said they just need to give the Unemployment Compensation Office time to catch up.

“Anyone getting that inactive status when trying to file their bi-weekly claim should ignore the direction to call the service center and, unfortunately, they just have to wait and check back later in the day or the next day to see if the claim gets opened. Just like with the pins, if individuals don’t have their claims opened in time to file for the benefits that are due, the department is making arrangements to make sure those benefits claimed will get paid once the claim gets reactivated,” he explained. “There’s nothing the individual has to do — they just have to wait until the claim gets reopened.”

A caller from Jersey Shore shared concerns about having just signed a $60,000 home improvement loan, which included work on a roof that “has shingles blowing off of it,” and now doesn’t have a contractor to do the work.

Yaw said they are trying to reach an agreement with the governor to let certain businesses, such as a home contractor, to be able to operate in a way that doesn’t place public health at risk.

“We want to do everything we can to get people back to work, but the problem is keeping the social distancing, which seems to be an effective way to at least combat and take on this virus,” said Yaw.

Another caller’s concerns focused on those that are able to continue doing business, but might not be taking all the steps to sanitize the workplace or protect their employees, or might be unable to due to a shortage in supplies.

Dala said as they wait for more protective equipment to come into the market, which is currently prioritized for health care workers on the front lines, he said cloth masks can be beneficial for those who can’t always stay home or maintain social distancing, along with regular hand washing. He also discouraged people from making hand sanitizer at home due to the time involved, potential detriments to one’s health, “and most important of all, it could not even work and provide a false sense of security.”

Another caller questioned the exemptions provided to certain manufacturers she didn’t feel are “life-sustaining,” such as those that make doors and windows, or pipes.

“It’s just a lot of people running around needlessly, spreading the virus,” the caller, identified as Sandy, said.

Yaw believed there have been some inconsistencies with the decision making, which Fink said could have been due to the quick turnaround officials had to make in response to COVID-19.

“Understandably, there is a waiver process and it’s a needed waiver process,” Fink continued, noting that the decision for which businesses are able to operate and which aren’t is out of the hands of the legislature. These decisions, he said, are made by the governor’s office and Department of Community and Economic Development.

On the other side of the issue, Fink said he had been on contact with the senator about the lumber industry being included on the list of “non-life-sustaining” business list when the pulp is in high demand for toilet paper manufacturing.

“It’s something that we’re working on and are trying to get some consistency in decision making,” Yaw explained. “As I said before, with all the health concerns, we’re trying to figure out a way to get people back to work and at least in some jobs. That’s why we’re talking about construction jobs, and even road construction, and things like that.”

Another caller, identified as Erin, said she applied for a waiver for her car dealership, but didn’t understand why it wasn’t considered “life-sustaining” in the governor’s eyes when these businesses are deemed essential at the federal level, especially given limitations on public transportation, the possibility that someone could hit a deer and total their car, the need for essential workers to be able to get to their jobs, and $1.8 million in leases being up between March and July.

Erin provided the example of an LPN at the Guthrie Robert Packer Hospital who totaled her car, but was unable to buy a new one.

“We actually gave her a car to drive until this whole mess is cleared up,” she explained.

Yaw said he and other lawmakers have written to the governor on this issue, and highlighted the lobbying efforts by the Pennsylvania Automotive Association and Pennsylvania Independent Automobile Dealers Association.

“Right now it rests with the governor,” Yaw said. “Your points are well taken and we agree with them.”

Another business owner, identified as Evan from Jersey Shore, shared concerns about the parcels he received from out of state and what precautions he should take with the packaging.

Dala said although there is uncertainty about how long the virus can survive on surfaces, and like other coronaviruses that affect humans, it could last anywhere from a few hours up to several days. Its longevity on packages could also vary based on temperature, humidity, and the type of packaging.

The solution, he said, is to clean the package with a simple disinfectant, followed by handwashing.

Slow rural internet access was also a concern. Dan Fulmer of Wilmot Township said the issue is especially crucial with students now learning remotely from home.

“We can often not even get a Google page to load, let alone any kind of online streaming for voice or media,” he said.

Yaw said that has been a long-time issue that, despite efforts at the state level, has produced little improvement, and is now more important than ever.

“I agree with you — we need to do something about it,” said Yaw, as he highlighted Bradford County’s efforts to install “middle mile” dark fiber infrastructure and a federal grant-funded initiative being undertaken by Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative. “It’s not only school work, it’s businesses, it’s even farming — it’s across the board.”

During the tele-town hall, Yaw thanked health care workers and responders working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as those who lent their expertise to the remote forum.

The senator said his offices have faced many questions and concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic in recent weeks — and with some issues, his staff hasn’t been able to provide immediate answers. However, by bringing the telephone town hall together, Yaw hoped to be able to address various concerns with the help of his guests.

“We think information and communication is key,” he said.

Yaw encouraged anyone with questions to contact his office in Williamsport at (570) 322-6457 or in Harrisburg at (717) 787-3280.

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