"Unemployment compensation was designed to provide safety for those who fell in and out of employment, not by their own doing, but because of the seasonality of their work," said Jack Figured, field representative for Local 5 of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers. "The seasonality is not the fault of the worker."
Some human resources departments may try to schedule workers in such as way to level out their earnings, but Mr. Figured said that could hurt workers, too.
Workers trying to stay below the new threshold will likely be earning less, Mr. Figured said, because they may not be able to take advantage of work when it becomes available. Even those with the best plan could find themselves sidelined by spring rains. For example, if a rainy second quarter pushes jobs into the third quarter, that could drive up the percentage of the earnings in that quarter and make workers ineligible.
"This creates a major hardship and looming uncertainty that affect the welfare of our workers," he said.
With so much uncertainty and pressure, some fear the building trades may not be able to attract quality candidates or would lose the skilled employees they have, something that Mr. Aronson said the original unemployment law took into a account.
"The state recognized it has a deep interest in ensuring that the people who build our hospitals, schools and roads keep body and soul together in the off-season," he said. "We don't want the people with the highest skills, training and experience to leave the state and leave us with second-rate, second-class buildings and infrastructure."
In the military, Mr. Spencer built roads with the Army Corps of Engineers and when he left Army, he wanted to continue to build roads. While the work can be "miserable," he enjoys it and thinks he's good at it. But he fears the new unemployment compensation gap will scare good people away from the industry.
Elizabeth Stelle, policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank, said the provisions were essential to preserve the unemployment system for all. She said it encourages people to seek work, continue paying into the unemployment system rather than tapping it.
"Because of the recession, there remains a large number of temporary and part-time positions available," she said.
Mr. Spencer's household now faces difficult choices. Asking his wife to work would derail the family's priority of helping her complete the Luzerne County Community College nursing program. He has worked through winters in the past -- as a carpenter's assistant, even at a car wash. But he's not sure who would give him a job for three months. It would be at the expense of time he banks to be with his children and support his wife in her studies.
"When I'm working sun-up to sundown in the summer, I look forward to that time with my kids. It's how we live in the business," Mr. Spencer said. "What kind of a real job could I get for three months?"
Work usually dries up around Thanksgiving. He had already resolved to call his mortgage company and request a hardship deferral on his mortgage, even though he's concerned about how it may affect his credit rating. He has been rehearsing what he will say.
"I'm going to tell them I will pay, that I have every intention of paying, as soon as I can. I just can't pay now," he said. "Once I make sure we can keep the house, I can figure out the rest of it."
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Original headline: Unemployment-rule change leaves seasonal workers out in cold
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