$25 boost in Pa. unemployment benefit takes effect

February 27, 2009 6:46:53 PM PST
A $25-a-week boost for Pennsylvania residents receiving unemployment compensation started this week as the state's jobless rate in January rose to its highest level in more than 15 years, officials said Friday. The new federal benefits come as Pennsylvania's unemployment compensation fund is running out of money from a flood of new claims.

For those getting unemployment compensation, the extra $25 may not show up in this week's check, but it will be paid soon, said Patrick Beaty, a deputy secretary in the state Labor and Industry Department. The extra $25 per week will remain in effect for the rest of this calendar year.

People who qualify for unemployed benefits right now can receive up to 72 weeks of pay - the last 46 being paid by the federal government.

In January, the seasonally adjusted jobless rate reached 7 percent, the highest mark since August 1993, up from a revised figure of 6.4 percent in December.

Help can't come too soon for Ernest Espejo.

The Harrisburg resident has been working part-time jobs off and on to make ends meet for his wife and stepson since he left his full-time job painting industrial pipes last April, he said. He took a two-month leave to clear his head after witnessing a workplace death, he said, with the understanding that he could return - but the company told him it has no openings.

"I'm willing to learn any new skill, I'll do anything, even janitor," said Espejo, 39, who was searching for jobs online Friday at a state unemployment office.

He said he has just qualified for unemployment compensation benefits. But his wife makes too much money - less than $20,000 - for them to qualify for Medicaid, food stamps or home-heating aid, and they are already behind on their rent, electric and car payments, he said.

Through Feb. 14, the state approved 173,000 new jobless claims for the current year, a 59 percent increase over the same period last year, Department of Labor and Industry officials said. The state's maximum unemployment compensation payout, before the additional $25, is $558 per week.

Payrolls shrank in the month by just 3,500, well below the job losses reported in November and December, department officials said Friday. In 2008, Pennsylvania lost 76,000 jobs - more than 1 percent of the state's work force at the beginning of the year.

Pennsylvania could receive another $273 million in federal stimulus money if it makes certain adjustments to expand the range of people who can receive benefits and how the benefit is calculated.

However, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry warned that making those changes would continue to cost the state money after the $273 million runs out.

The Legislature would have to approve those changes. In the meantime, the economy does not appear to be improving and Pennsylvania's state government was on track to collect less revenue in February than it had projected, marking its 10 straight monthly shortfall, a Republican Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman said.

Wanda Williams, 39, is also desperate to find work. Eight months pregnant, the single mother of two from Harrisburg qualified for unemployment benefits after being fired from her call-center job - a dispute over time missed for doctor's appointments, she said.

She is applying for food stamps and on Friday was at a state unemployment office looking online for a job or for training to get into the health care field.

But she has no health insurance and the doctor's bills are piling up. Her 17-year-old son wants to go to college and her 6-year-old son wants to know why his mom isn't working.

"I was never the type of person to rely on the system. I've always worked," Williams said. "My son says, 'Mom what happened?' How do you explain to a 6-year-old why you're not going to work?"

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