Senate passes unemployment compensation bill

David Weissman
  • The bill will provide up to $15 million for state's unemployment compensation system.
  • The labor department had requested $57.5 million last session, but Senate refused to vote on bill.
  • The department furloughed 500 employees and closed three centers, leading to increased call wait times.

A bill to provide additional funding to operate the state's unemployment compensation system passed a hurdle Wednesday that it couldn't get past last session.

Furloughed Labor and Industry workers and allies, including  Laurie Haines, center, of York, stand outside Sen. Scott Wagner's office chanting "If we don't get no justice, you don't get no peace" following a rally to fund laid-off unemployment call center workers, Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

The Senate passed the bill, 39-8, to authorize up to $15 million of additional funding to the state Department of Labor and Industry to operate the system, which has faced criticisms since late 2016.

Senate Bill 250, introduced by Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County, now heads to the House, where a bill to provide $57.5 million to the department was overwhelmingly voted through last year.

That bill, however, stalled when the Republican-controlled Senate refused to vote on it.

After that refusal. the department furloughed nearly 500 employees and closed three offices, which have led to a drastic increase in call-wait times to unemployment compensation centers.

Bills have been proposed in each chamber to authorize that full $57.5 million this year, but Ward, chairwoman of the Senate Labor and Industry Committee, said she believes her proposal would provide a good temporary fix while a long-term solution is configured.

Ward's bill also includes stipulations that the Labor department must submit a report by June 15 to General Assembly committee leaders describing a plan to stop future reliance on these additional funding measures.

Dissent: Sens. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township; Mike Folmer, R-York, Dauphin and Lebanon counties; and Mike Regan, R-York and Cumberland counties, were among the few who voted against the bill.

State Sen. Scott Wagner. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Wagner said he had led the charge against holding a vote on the bill last session because of a lack of accountability by the department for the money already allocated to them.

The Legislature had allocated about $178 million in additional funding from 2013 to 2016 for the unemployment compensation system, and nearly $170 million was spent before then to modernize the department's technology, which remains out-of-date.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced earlier this month that his administration plans to sue IBM over its failure to fully modernize that system.

Future: The department issued a statement thanking Ward for taking the lead on the issue but added that it would prefer a long-term solution to prevent another future crisis.

The department did not say how many employees could be brought back or for how long with $15 million, but Ward said the additional funding should get the department through  the beginning of November.

During recent Senate and House hearings, Labor Secretary Kathy Manderino told legislators that it costs the department $3.4 million per week to operate the unemployment compensation system under its previous allotment of staff.

Manderino also told legislators it would take three to six weeks for the system to get ramped back up if funding were approved. The closed centers in Lancaster and Allentown cannot be reopened because the buildings were leased, but the center in Altoona is still a state-owned property.

Ward said the temporary relief will allow the Legislature to consider the results of an audit currently being conducted by the state Auditor General's Office. The audit is expected to be completed by the end of April.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.