(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania House lawmakers support reinstating work search requirements for unemployment claimants and said loosened regulations will bolster the state’s economic recovery.
The Department of Labor & Industry said, however, that the manpower shortage businesses face is not a result of suspended work search requirements or the $300 weekly jobless benefit enhancement approved by Congress in March.
“Work search has never been suspended before, so there’s no precedent for reinstating it,” said Sarah DeSantis, a department spokesperson. “We are working with our partners and stakeholders to determine a best date to restart.”
House Republicans think June 8 is a good starting date.
“The biggest complaint we hear from businesses is that they don’t have manpower,” said Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, on Wednesday. “We see a lot of help wanted signs out there."
A report released Thursday from the National Federation of Independent Business shows 44% of small employers said they had staff openings in April, the third month straight of “record high” reports of unfilled positions.
“Pennsylvania small business owners are working hard to get their business back on track after the pandemic but are having trouble hiring and reaching a full, productive staff,” said NFIB Pennsylvania State Director Greg Moreland. “It is important that our Pennsylvania lawmakers prioritize policies that will promote job growth and not deter the small business recovery.”
That’s why, Benninghoff said, the chamber's Labor and Industry Committee approved House Bill 406 on Tuesday, which would restore the work search requirement for residents receiving unemployment compensation. No Democrats supported moving the proposal to the floor for consideration.
Legislators suspended the policy last year as part of its pandemic relief efforts, but let it lapse in 2021. The Wolf administration still waives the requirement and said the labor shortage stems from other challenges, such as residents in the midst of the vaccination process or parents caring for children or waiting for schools to return to in-person instruction.
“Even with the suspension of work search, Pennsylvanians who turn down a suitable job offer or recall to work are not eligible for unemployment benefits,” DeSantis said.
In reality, employers say that part of the policy is not currently enforced.
“The employees are just taken care of well enough through unemployment compensation and the benefit add-on and they are just not interested in coming back,” Robert Carl, president and CEO of the Schuylkill County Chamber of Commerce, told the House Majority Policy Committee last month. “It’s not unusual at all.”
About 2.6 million residents applied for jobless benefits last year. DeSantis said unemployment rolls still exceed pre-pandemic levels, even as employers beef up incentives to attract workers, like higher wages and sign-on bonuses.
The department is using the exempted period to prepare for the challenges that may lie ahead when hundreds of thousands of claimants face reinstated mandates to keep their benefits.
"We need to ensure we have the capacity for work search," she said. "For example, we need to ensure PA CareerLink has enough bandwidth on their website for the sudden surge in visitors that will occur when work search is reinstated."
Nearly two dozen other states are advancing legislation to reinstate the policy, while others are considering terminating the enhanced weekly benefit in order to boost employment.
Benninghoff said although getting residents back to work remains a top priority for the Legislature, he's not considering following suit on repealing the weekly benefit, set to expire on Sept. 4.
Instead, he wants to review other suspended regulations that may now be obsolete. Several measures that passed the chamber Wednesday would give lawmakers more control in reviewing and repealing regulations, especially those “that impose a substantial cost” to the state.
“If you can suspend a regulation for almost 14 months, how important is it? How appropriate is it?” Benninghoff said. “Maybe it’s outdated.”