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COVID-19 in Pa.: As businesses close, 650,000 Pennsylvanians applied for unemployment benefits

By: - March 26, 2020 11:12 am

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*This story was updated at 3:05 pm with additional comment from Gov. Tom Wolf

Nearly 1 in 10 Pennsylvania workers have applied for unemployment benefits over the past 11 days, according to newly released state data.

According to the Department of Labor and Industry, almost 650,000 Pennsylvanians applied for unemployment since Sunday, March 15. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 6.55 million Pennsylvanians in the labor force.

The increase matches a federal surge in unemployment claims. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 3.28 million Americans filed for unemployment last week, from March 15 to 21 — almost five times greater than the previous high in 1982.

In a press conference Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf acknowledged that the surge was taxing the state’s system to process claims.

“We are not doing a perfect job, and every day I think we are getting better at this,” Wolf said.

He added that he expected an additional 150,000 claims to come through Thursday and Friday, for a total of 800,000 claims over the past two weeks.

Last week, the Department of Labor and Industry revealed that its phone lines were understaffed, to meet Wolf’s order to keep non-essential state employees home.

The department added that online applications were proceeding smoothly regardless of delays by phone.

Pennsylvania makes up an outsized portion of the increase. In that same week, 378,900 Pennsylvanians applied for benefits, according to the L&I data — or 11.5 percent of the increase reported by the federal government.

The largest single-day surge in claims came Friday, March 20, the day after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all non-“life sustaining” businesses — including most services, retail, and restaurants dining rooms — to close. That day, 90,677 Pennsylvanians applied for benefits.

Thousands of food service employees out of jobs as Pa. unemployment claims spike

Another 86,634 workers applied for benefits on Monday, March 23 — when enforcement of Wolf’s order began.

The mass layoffs could trigger extended benefits for the hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians now without a job. Benefits currently last about six months, and pay between $68 to $561 every two weeks. 

The exact payment depends on how much money the worker made over the course of the last year. The program is funded by payments from both employees and employers.

Legislative action to expand benefits is on the way. The U.S. Senate approved a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus Wednesday night, which will fund a temporary $600 a week increase in unemployment benefits. 

The bill will also allow gig workers and self-employed individuals, normally not covered by unemployment, to receive benefits.

Finally, the stimulus will include a one-time $1,200 payment to most Americans — parents with children will receive more, while individuals making higher income receive less.

In parallel, the General Assembly in Harrisburg approved tweaks to the state’s unemployment law to utilize new federal dollars Wednesday.

In new normal, Pa. House and Senate lawmakers vote remotely to send COVID-19 relief bills to Wolf’s desk

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.