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State extends jobless benefits

The unemployment compensation system is complicated, officials at the state Department of Labor & Industry have said repeatedly during regular press briefings since claims mushroomed starting in mid-March, due to COVID-19.

UC was complicated to start with, and it got more complicated after Congress added the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program (FPUC), which provides an extra $600 a week; the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program (PUA) for the self-employed, who were not previously eligible; and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which extended benefits for up to 13 weeks after claimants exhausted their regular UC.

There’s now another complication — a welcome one for those still out of work: Unemployment Compensation Extended Benefits, which add as many as 13 additional weeks for those who’ve exhausted regular UC and PEUC extended benefits.

The program was triggered when the Pennsylvania unemployment rate reached “a certain level determined by law,” and it’s being funded through the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, according to a news release from the department.

The new Extended Benefits (EB) period began May 3, but payments didn’t begin until this week, according to the news release.

The department will send information about the EB program to those who may qualify, according to the news release.

Potential recipients must complete weekly certifications.

Benefits are payable even for partial unemployment.

Those who don’t receive a “financial determination” within two weeks of getting their final PEUC payment should call the UC Service Center at 888-313-7284, according to the news release.

Weekly benefit amounts are the same as for regular UC, but the total EB benefit amount can be no greater than half the regular UC amount the claimant was eligible for, according to Susan Dickinson, director of the Office of Unemployment Compensation Benefits Policy, speaking at this week’s press briefing.

That means claimants who have an odd number of weeks’ worth of regular UC benefits will end up with an amount that will include a half-week at the end, Dickinson said.

Claimants will receive payment the same way they received their PEUC money — whether by debit or direct deposit, Dickinson said.

There is an additional wage test for EB eligibility, “so not all individuals will financially qualify,” the news release stated.

Since March 15, Labor & Industry has paid out

$21.5 billion in benefits — $9.7 billion for regular UC; $9.8 billion for FPUC (the extra $600 a week); $2.3 billion through PUA (for the self-employed); and $133 million for PEUC (the first extension), according to the news release.

More than 90 percent of eligible claimants who applied for help between mid-March and the end of May have received benefits, according to Labor Secretary Jerry Oleksiak, speaking during the press briefing.

Since mid-March, the department has expanded its UC workforce from 775 to 1,388 employees, and those employees have logged 172,000 overtime hours, Oleksiak said.

The UC office has responded to 475,000 emails; taken 214,000 phone calls and responded to 240,000 calls with its virtual assistant “Watson,” the secretary said.

Because of a national barrage of fraud with PUA, L&I has evaluated 58,000 suspect PUA claims, finding that “the great majority” were valid, Oleksiak said. Those valid claims have been paid, he said. The department is continuing to upgrade its PUA system to help with the fraud investigation, he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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