Pa. House votes to end disaster declaration, relaunch unemployment work requirements

The exterior of The Pennsylvania Capitol

The Pennsylvania Capitol is pictured in a file photo. (Office of Gov. Tom Wolf)

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted to terminate the commonwealth’s disaster declaration, part of an ongoing GOP effort to peel back pandemic measures put in place by Gov. Tom Wolf.

The Wolf Administration has already lifted many of the limitations Republicans have railed against, for example business occupancy limitations which were lifted on Memorial Day. But the resolution would reinstate work search requirements for unemployment compensation recipients ahead of the Wolf administration’s timeline. It would also stop the administration from entering into no-bid contracts during emergencies.

“[Pennsylvanians’] lives have been upended, their livelihoods destroyed in some cases, and their liberties interrupted by the inconsistent and unilateral uses of power,” said House Majority leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Lebanon), after the resolution’s passage. “This emergency is over.”

Originally the resolution called for terminating the declaration in its entirety on October 1, but the House voted to amend that date to as soon as it passes the state Senate, which could be as early as Wednesday.

The legislature is able to flex this new power because voters approved a constitutional amendment during the May 18 primary. The amendment curtailed the executive branch’s emergency powers and gave the legislature the ability to end a disaster declaration with a simple majority vote. A governor now also has to seek approval for extending such designations beyond three weeks.

The resolution advanced 113-90, along party lines.

The Department of Labor and Industry had previously announced that the work search requirements would be reinstituted on July 18. If the resolution passes the Senate, Pennsylvania would follow a majority of states in the country which have reinstituted the mandate as coronavirus cases dropped and businesses reopened.

Before the pandemic, unemployment recipients had to register their job search on PA CareerLink, a state-run workforce development site, within 30 days of applying. After the third week of their benefit year, recipients had to apply to two jobs and do one “work search activity,” such as uploading a resume, each week, to continue receiving unemployment benefits. In states where these activities have already resumed, some unemployment recipients said these systems do not account for reasons why someone may still not be able to work that follow from the pandemic, such as a lack of childcare or ongoing health concerns.

It is also not clear how well the commonwealth will be able to implement them.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry launched a new filing system for claims, replacing 40-year-old technology. State officials did not say if they would be able to accommodate the new criteria to the new system ahead of schedule.

“At this point, we are so focused on making sure that we serve existing claimants with the current requirements of the system that we’re going to have to look at that once we cross that bridge,” said Jennifer Berrier, acting secretary of Labor and Industry.

The Wolf administration also criticized the move as potentially harmful to families still reeling from the economic shock of the pandemic, because the disaster declaration is used to free up dollars and suspend regulations.

“It allows more medical professionals to administer vaccines, ensures families harmed financially by the pandemic have access to healthy food through SNAP benefits and ensures Pennsylvania counties and businesses remain eligible for federal disaster recovery dollars,” wrote Kensinger.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal