Policy discussion: Construction workers and unemployment compensation

Policy Committee examines unemployment compensation specifically as it affects construction workers

HARRISBURG, Feb. 15 – During a hearing of the House Democratic Policy Committee Monday, lawmakers explored the challenges Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation system had for construction workers and how the legislature can work with the Department of Labor & Industry to make the process better and easier to navigate. 

Testifiers at the hearing said construction workers are used to working intermittently and preparing for times of the year when working on job sites isn’t possible; however, the pandemic left many Pennsylvania construction workers out of work for much longer than normal. Turning to the unemployment compensation system to fill the gap revealed a convoluted, hard to navigate system riddled with glitches and fraud. Years of budget cuts and legislative changes designed to make accessing benefits difficult left an outdated and understaffed program incapable of meeting the need.

“We have been dealing with a lot of unemployment concerns from Pennsylvanians for the last two years, many of whom were construction workers,” said Rep. Jennifer O’Mara, D-Delaware. “This pandemic has been hard on everyone, and we need to do everything we can to make sure we don’t lose sight of what went wrong and learn how we can do better for construction workers and all workers in our commonwealth.”   

The hearing took place at noon in room G-50 of the Speaker K. Leroy Irvis Office Building in Harrisburg. Testifiers included Todd Farally, Political Director, Sheet Metal Workers Local 19; Jesse DiRenna, President IUOE Local 66; Warren Santone, Organizer, Laborers Local 413; and Secretary Jennifer Berrier, Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

O’Mara said Farally gave compelling testimony of one member who, because they could not get UC benefits in time, had a car repossessed. He and other construction worker union members expressed that many of these problems persist and they’re eager to learn how they can partner with the Department of Labor and Industry to fix them.  

In her testimony, Berrier explained the confusing UC process to attendees and expressed that the legislature could help to fix the process: “As part of the response to fiscal pressures on the UC Trust Fund following the Great Recession, Republicans in the state legislature passed Act 6 of 2011 which, among a myriad of other changes, created the credit week formula for benefit eligibility. This has the intended effect of saving the Trust Fund money by ensuring fewer UC claimants are eligible for benefits and tying up additional claimants in webs of red tape,” Berrier said.   

“During the pandemic, there was no shortage of issues with the unemployment process,” said Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, D-Erie, chairman of the committee. “We are grateful to Secretary Berrier for working tirelessly to fix any issues and help us navigate the process. We’re committed to continuing to help our constituents through this process, working in the legislature to improve our unemployment compensation system.”  

More than a dozen state representatives joined the hearing.

Information about this and other House Democratic Policy Committee hearings can be found at www.pahouse.com/policycommittee.