The Pennsylvania House is expected to take up legislation today that would continue extended federal unemployment benefits for 45,000 out-of-work Pennsylvanians now (and up to 90,000 through the end of the year). If they approve it, state Senate leaders plan a vote in that chamber on Friday.
This is great news after weeks of back-and-forth negotiations between House and Senate leaders over whether this legislation should also include benefit cuts and other longer-term changes to the state's unemployment insurance system.
The General Assembly has to make a technical change now to how it calculates "long-term unemployment" in order to secure the extended federal benefits through the end of the year. The Senate passed such a bill last month. House leaders, however, wanted to go further, with a plan that would have slashed unemployment benefits by about 20%. As I wrote on May 24, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers rejected this approach — good news in this still too fragile economy.
Since then, lawmakers from both chambers have been meeting to iron out their differences. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explains this morning, House leaders say they have come to an agreement that will prevent anyone from losing benefits. This morning on Twitter, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati promised a vote in the Senate on Friday if the House acts today.
This is a positive development — but one that comes too close to the deadline for action, as 45,000 unemployed workers already scrapping by on a modest insurance benefit will now face a brief interruption in the delivery of their checks. We're talking about people who paid into the unemployment insurance system and were unfortunate enough to lose a job through no fault of their own.
Legislative action could have come a lot sooner, had the business lobby not pressed to use the deadline as a bargaining chip in their so-far failed (see update at the top) campaign to undermine the effectiveness of the unemployment insurance system. Lawmakers locally and nationally need to stop playing chicken with working and middle-class families.
To be sure, unemployed workers aren't out of the woods yet. Lawmakers say the General Assembly will consider more changes to the state's unemployment system in the fall, and that could include more benefit cuts. That would take us in the wrong direction.
Unemployment benefits are a lifeline to communities across Pennsylvania coping with high jobless rates. When people lose their jobs, it is unemployment benefits, food stamps and income assistance that keep them and their families from losing everything. And that helps local economies.
State lawmakers should act quickly to secure the extended federal unemployment benefits now and take care that their future actions do no further harm to the economy.