A road construction worker, Nick Spencer earns most of his salary and makes most of his annual purchases in the summer, buying Christmas presents, wood pellets and household necessities he and his family will need when he is not working in the winter. The Tunkhannock man needs that stockpile now more than ever as he finds himself shut out of the unemployment compensation he, his wife, and three children have relied upon through the winter months.
Changes approved by the state Legislature last year affected how eligibility for unemployment benefits is calculated for seasonal employees such as construction workers. Now, tens of thousands of those workers who qualified for unemployment in years past are facing the winter without that income. Mr. Spencer, 35, works for Eastern Industries Inc. and stands on equipment in summer heat, feeding steaming, 300-degree asphalt into the spreader. He drinks two gallons of water on a typical workday, which can be 12 to 14 hours in the summer months, the ideal time for road-building.
The long hours and six-day workweeks are the problem. By earning more than 50.5 percent of his base annual income in a single quarter, he cannot collect unemployment under Act 60, which took effect Jan. 1. The law reduced the quarterly earnings threshold from 63 percent, a level high enough that it didn't seem to disqualify many.
Mr. Spencer works too hard to collect unemployment.
By changing the formula, Act 60 architects knew that approximately 49,000 employees would be ineligible. Irwin W. Aronson, a labor attorney practicing in Harrisburg, called the denial of unemployment compensation to workers who pay for it "mean-spirited and unreasonable."
"Not only are workers and their families going to have to the choose between medicine, milk and sugar and shoes, they have been disqualified for an insurance for which they pay premiums," he said.
State Labor Secretary Julia K. Hearthway, in a recent editorial board meeting with The Times-Tribune, said the regular, recurrent use of the unemployment compensation system violates the intent of the unemployment safety net. The alternative to Act 60 reforms, she said, would have been across-the-board cuts in benefits or increases in unemployment compensation premiums paid by employees and employers. The state is faced with a $4 billion debt to the federal government and possible insolvency of the unemployment fund due largely to the recession and federally mandated extension of benefits that drained the fund.
"The decision was between something that impacted a small percent of the state workforce or something that affected 100 percent," Ms. Hearthway said.
Reforms that hurt the few and left the many unaffected proved politically expedient, said state Rep. Marty Flynn, D-113, Scranton, who took office in January. He reviewed the path of Act 60 after union leaders complained to him about staunchly pro-labor representatives from the Philadelphia region supporting changes that would clearly harm those in the construction trades. Mr. Flynn called it a case of regional politics, noting that Philadelphia is warmer than the rest of the state with a longer construction season and fewer workers affected by the change. "The southeastern Pennsylvania reps, even the pro-labor ones, knew their workers wouldn't be hurt as badly by Act 60," Mr. Flynn said. "They were told if they didn't sign onto it, the administration would come after everybody."
While defenders characterize the changes as reining-in a misuse of the program, labor advocates say the formula crafted in the 1970s specifically accommodates construction workers.
Most Popular Stories
- Apple Wants Samsung to Pay $22M for Patent Dispute Legal Bills
- Twitter Coming to Phones Without Internet
- NASA Fellowships, Scholarships Bring Diversity to Workforce
- Dish Network Leads 2013 Top 50 Advertisers List
- Networks Vie for U.S. Hispanic TV Viewers
- Ad Counts Rise in 2013 for Hispanic Magazines
- Entravision Initiates Quarterly Cash Dividend
- Jobs Report Brings Cheer As Unemployment Drops to Five-year Low
- Warner Bros. Unleashes 'Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug' Merchandise
- Shanghai Smog Forces Factory Shutdowns