When Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, looks in the mirror, he sees Donald Trump wearing a Pennsylvania sash. But while Donald Trump at least says he wants to help working people in America, Sen. Wagner has been actively undermining working people by, among other things, opposing bi-partisan legislation to fund unemployment insurance call centers.
The failure to enact this legislation will harm newly unemployed Pennsylvanians, businesses, and 600 state employees who will soon lose their jobs.
The state’s unemployment compensation system has long had difficulties. An outdated computer system and inadequate funding made it difficult for unemployed Pennsylvanians to claim the right amount of unemployment insurance payments — payments funded by a small payroll tax that all workers pay.
The legislature responded in 2013 with Act 34, which diverted a small percentage of unemployment tax revenues over a four-year period to a Service Improvement and Infrastructure Fund to operate and improve the technology at the unemployment compensation service centers. Progress has clearly been made at the call centers, as wait times have declined substantially. But difficulties remain in implementing a new information technology system for the unemployment insurance system.
Act 34 expires on Dec. 31. The Department of Labor and Industry has been working with the General Assembly to reauthorize funding for the SIIF. New legislation, HB 2375, provides $57.5 million in funding for the system while also requiring an audit of previous SIIF expenditures that will hold both the Department and private contractors accountable for the work they have done.
HB 2375 was passed by the PA House by an overwhelming, bi-partisan vote of 175-13. Both the Senate Appropriations and Labor and Industry Committees passed it unanimously with Sen. Wagner not voting. But at Sen. Wagner’s behest, the Republican leadership in the Senate declined to bring it up for a vote on what was supposed to be the last day of the legislative session.
The failure to pass HB 2375 will force the Department of Labor and Industry to close call centers in Allentown, Altoona, and Lancaster and reduce the size of the one in Harrisburg. About a third of the unemployment compensation system workforce will be laid off. The results will be devastating to those who rely on the UI system:
Employees who are laid off from seasonal work in December and January will find it far more difficult to get the information they need to file for their benefits.
Businesses that expect laid-off employees to survive with unemployment insurance for a few weeks before being called back to work will find that employees who can’t get insurance have moved on to new jobs, which requires the business to hire and train new ones.
Businesses that try to contact an unemployment office to resolve questions about charges to their account or that seek to create a shared work program for employees will find it hard to get their questions answered.
Taxpayers will suffer because audits that reduce fraud and improper payments will be few and far between.
600 state employees will lose their jobs a few days before Christmas.
A political movement that wants to help working people, at a minimum, must support the unemployed, the businesses that create jobs, and the public sector workers whose jobs, wages, and benefits help create and hold up wages in the private sector. Sen. Wagner’s approach to governing is not so much Trump “lite” as it is old-fashioned, anti-worker conservatism. Wagner resembles Trump only in that his blunderbuss approach to governing threatens to create chaos.
There is still a brief window of opportunity in which the state Senate can act. If Majority Leader Jake Corman is willing to stand up to Sen. Wagner and recall the Senate on or before Wednesday, Nov. 30, and bring HB 2375 to the floor, it will likely be approved by a large majority.
After the immediate emergency is overcome, the Department of Labor and Industry and the General Assembly, together with a workforce that is committed to improving the unemployment insurance system, can go back to focusing on the long-term fixes it needs.
Marc Stier is the director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.