Senator Judy Ward E-Newsletter

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In This Edition:

  • Telephone Town Hall
  • Concerns About Governors Planned Prisoner Release Plans
  • Information Available for Claimants Struggling With Unemployment Compensation System
  • Expanded Unemployment Benefit Payments Begin This Week
  • Benefits Available Soon for Contractors, Self-Employed Workers
  • Utilizing Federal Standards for Determining Essential Businesses
  • Guide Advising Pennsylvanians Of Their Rights and Protections
  • Utility Providers, Other Companies Provide Assistance Programs

I will be fielding questions about COVID-19 and the state’s response to the pandemic during a special telephone town hall on Friday, April 17 at 9:50 a.m. 

I be joined by a panel of experts in medicine, business and unemployment benefits to answer questions from local residents. Participants are encouraged to ask questions or simply remain on the line to listen to the conversation.

Community residents can sign up to participate at www.senatorjudyward.com/tele-town-hall. A live audio stream will also be available on the webpage.

Concerns About Governors Planned Prisoner Release Plan

As Governor Wolf prepares to release up to 1,800 prisoners from state correctional institutions amid the COVID-19 outbreak, I am raising concerns about the decision and the process of allowing inmates to go free.

The entire premise behind COVID-19 mitigation has been doing what is best for public safety.  I have serious doubts that releasing prisoners without the consent of the judicial branch or prosecutors will make our communities safer.  If we are going to release criminals back into society before their sentences are finished, we need to determine whether they present any real risk of recidivism. That can’t happen without empowering the people who tried these cases and sentenced these criminals in the first place to veto releases of potentially dangerous criminals.

The current process outlined by the Wolf Administration claims it would offer an opportunity for judges and district attorneys to provide input into decisions about inmate releases, but the final decision would be made solely by the Department of Corrections, without veto power by a Judge or District Attorney.

Also very concerning is the order does not limit the number of inmates eligible for the program and there is no mandate for the use of GPS monitors for home confinements.

Information Available for Claimants Struggling With Unemployment Compensation System

The spike in the number of applicants in the Unemployment Compensation system has created longer response times and a large backlog of cases that sometimes take weeks to resolve. A number of services are available online to help resolve some questions regarding the system.

Claimants can check the status of their application online, find answers to frequently asked questions and read tips on how to file an initial claim and more at www.uc.pa.gov.

Claimants who have filed an initial claim in mid-March who have not received a PIN should contact the Department of Labor and Industry as soon as possible. The same guidance applies to individuals who tried to re-open an existing claim in mid-March and are still listed as “inactive” when they try to file a bi-weekly claim.

If you meet one of these criteria or have other questions or problems that are not covered on the department’s website, please feel free to contact me for assistance.

Expanded Unemployment Benefit Payments Begin This Week

The federal CARES Act provides expanded unemployment benefits of $600 per week to eligible claimants. These payments are in addition to regular benefits provided through the unemployment system. The Department of Labor and Industry reports that these payments should arrive by Wednesday of this week for eligible claimants who received their regular payments for the week ending April 4.

Claimants who have not yet received a payment will receive the extra $600 per week in the days following receipt of their first payment. An additional 13 weeks of benefits will be available to claimants who have been affected by the pandemic.

More information on the state’s efforts to implement the provisions of the CARES Act is available on a new website created by the Department of Labor and Industry.

Benefits Available Soon for Contractors, Self-Employed Workers

The CARES Act temporarily makes benefits available to other individuals who are not normally eligible, such as people who are self-employed, independent contractors and gig workers. However, these individuals cannot apply through the current unemployment system; the federal government requires the state to create a new platform to provide these benefits.

The Department of Labor and Industry expects to have the new system up and running within the next two weeks. Claimants will be able to receive backdated payments to January 27 or the first week that they were unable to work due to the coronavirus, whichever is later. More information about the new program is available on the department’s frequently asked questions page.

Utilizing Federal Standards for Determining Essential Businesses

I have heard from so many constituents about the confusion over what is an essential business and the process involving granting of waivers.  People can’t survive without the economy in operation. Over a million people are out of work. We need to be smarter about this and make common sense decisions and have clear guidelines.  In order to do this I am co-sponsoring new legislation that would change the way the Commonwealth determines which businesses are deemed to be essential and life-sustaining for future disaster declarations.

Specifically, when a formal disaster declaration affecting the Commonwealth is made the federal definitions governing what employees, businesses, social services, etc are deemed “life sustaining” will be adopted.  More information is available here

Guide Advising Pennsylvanians Of Their Rights and Protections   

The Attorney General released a new guide advising Pennsylvanians of their rights, protections, and supportive programs. The rights and resources guide details benefits available to Pennsylvanians during the COVID-19 emergency, including: 

  • Guaranteed access to utilities like heat, water, and electricity;
  • Moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and auto repossessions;
  • Grace period for paying student loans;
  • Grace period for paying home and auto loans;
  • Waived payments from banks for late and overdraft fees;
  • Expanded unemployment eligibility to gig workers, contract workers who use 1099 forms to pay, workers with previously inadequate employment history, and part time workers;
  • Increased unemployment benefits, roughly double the previously available;
  • And up to 2 weeks paid-leave for individuals caring for a sick family member or child whose school has closed.

The guide is available to Pennsylvanians, and contains information about who to contact for each of the benefits and protections it discusses.

Utility Providers, Other Companies Provide Assistance Programs

The COVID-19 crisis has affected millions of Americans across the country. Most major utility companies are offering special assistance programs to help families who have been impacted by the pandemic. Some of the programs include delayed or partial payments, hardship funds, budget billing and other programs to help customers.

More information about the different kinds of programs and services to help utility customers is available on the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s website.

Individuals and families who are struggling to pay bills during this pandemic should reach out to their utility companies, mortgage/rental companies, credit card companies and other lenders to see what programs may be available to help.

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