Pennsylvania Unemployment – Know Your Rights
The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry administers the state’s unemployment insurance system, assisting workers who lost their job through no fault of their own. Recently, potential matters of mismanagement caused the state auditors to investigate the department’s use of funds over the past year. The state’s funding issues forced the closing of several service centers and the dismissal of half the service force.
While the state claims to have the matter under control, claimants report significant delays in service. Such delays make it important for you to develop a clear understanding of the procedures for filing an unemployment benefits claim in Pennsylvania.
This journalist has an update on the current problem.
Eligibility for Benefits in PA
To be eligible to receive benefits, you must have earned enough wages in a 12-month period from an employer covered by the state’s unemployment insurance law (a “covered employer”). If you have earned enough wages, the state will then consider whether:
- You lost your job through no fault of your own
- You are able and available to work
- You are legally authorized to work in the US
Then, you have to register with the Pennsylvania Job Gateway to show you are engaged in looking for work. The Office of Unemployment Compensation (OUC) will require that you maintain your eligibility status as long as you receive benefits.
Eligibility Requirements Explained
Lost Your Job Through No Fault of Your Own
Your actions or decisions cannot cause your separation from work. If your employer moves their store or the plant shuts down, you may be eligible for a lack of work.
Able and Available
You must be physically and mentally able to work when you file your claim. You must be available to accept any offer of suitable employment. “Suitable employment” is a job similar in salary, duties and responsibilities to a job you held previously.
You must be a US citizen or be able to prove that you are allowed to work in the US (resident alien card, etc)
Wage Requirements and the Base Period
The OUC requires that you earn enough money within a 12-month period prior to your filing a claim to be eligible for benefits. The 12-month period is called the base period. It’s the first four of the last five quarters (3 month periods) prior to filing a claim.
The OUC determines qualifications based on how much you earned during the quarter where you earned the most wages from covered employment (the “high quarter”). To be eligible, you must have earned at least 37% of your total wages in the months that weren’t your “high quarter.”
Calculating Benefit Amount
The amount the OUC distributes to you per week is the weekly benefit amount (WBA). The state will send you a Notice of Financial Determination detailing your WBA and the amounts they used to determine benefits. Your WBA should be roughly half the weekly salary during your highest quarter. Check your Notice to see if the state used your highest quarter wages to determine your WBA if your amount seems low. You may request that they use your highest quarter wages.
The OUC’s website has a chart that helps you estimate your WBA based on your wages during the base period. This table will inform you of the current maximum and minimum WBA you may receive. The current max is $561, and the minimum is $68.
A credit week is any week during your base period where you earned at least $116. You must have at least 18 credit weeks to be eligible to receive benefits. The state uses credit weeks not only to determine eligibility, but also to determine your personal maximum benefit amount. The maximum amount you may receive during the year will be your WBA X your credit weeks. No one receives more than 26.
The state provides funds in addition to your WBA based on your dependents. You can chose a dependent spouse, or child or both, but you cannot choose more than two dependents. You may collect $5 per week for the first dependent and $3 for the second.
Claiming dependents may allow you to receive more than the max WBA. However, there is a limit to how many weeks you may collect during a benefit year (the one-year period after you file your claim).
You may receive benefits for more than your maximum credit weeks during times of high unemployment. Congress has in recent years provided additional funds for those unemployed to receive benefits for as many as 99 weeks. With current unemployment rates at reasonable levels, the state no longer offers Extended Benefits or Emergency Unemployment Compensation.
How to Apply for Benefits in PA
You have several options in filing for benefits in Pennsylvania. You can file online using the Online Unemployment Compensation site, via telephone or by mailing in a paper application. You can even file via videophone if you need to use sign language.
Telephone: 1-888-313-7284 (TTY services for the deaf and hard of hearing 1-888-334-4046)
The videophone service is available every Wednesday from noon to 4 p.m. at 717-704-8474.
You will need to make certain information available to the OUC when you apply for benefits. This information includes:
- Current, valid contact information, including telephone number and email
- A Pennsylvania driver’s license or state issued ID
- Your social security number
- Proof of citizenship or an alien registration number
- Current, valid contact information for your former employers
- The starting and ending dates of your employment
- The reason for leaving work
- Information on any severance or vacation pay receive
- Bank routing and account numbers if you are using direct deposit
If you worked for the federal government or military during the 18 months prior to your filing a claim, you will have to have the appropriate separation forms. You may also present a copy of your pay stubs, which may save a little time.
Filing Your Biweekly Claim and Maintaining Eligibility
The OUC requires that all benefit recipients maintain their eligibility status during the benefit year. To monitor your status, the OUC will ask that you file a claim every two weeks. This is known as filing a continuing claim, or certifying your claim. You will not receive benefit if you don’t file a claim every two weeks, even if you are eligible, unless very special circumstances apply.
You may file your claim online from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday, and 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you cannot get Internet access, you can file via the Pennsylvania Teleclaims system (PAT) from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday, and 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call 888-255-4728 (TTY services for the deaf and hard of hearing: 888-334-4046).
You will have to provide the OUC with certain information regarding your status to verify your claim. The OUC will want to know whether:
- You continue to be able and available for work
- You have started or quit a job during the benefit weeks
- You have earned any wages during the benefit weeks
- You are looking for full-time work
- You have refused an offer of suitable employment
The state requires you to report any wages you earned during the week. You must report the wages in the benefit week when you performed the work, not when you were paid for that work.
Work Search Requirement
The state requires benefit recipients to make a good faith effort to find work. You must register with the PA Job Gateway when you first apply for benefits, your first step in finding work. To stay eligible, you must apply for two jobs per week, and in addition, complete one other “job search activity.” A job search activity could consist of:
- Attend a job fair.
- Search positions posted on the JobGateway® system or Internet job banks.
- Create or post a résumé in the JobGateway® system or post a résumé in other résumé-posting services.
- Contact colleagues, former co-workers or other individuals in similar professions or occupations to make known your availability for employment or obtain information about available positions, prospective employers or other employment opportunities.
- Utilize an employment agency, employment registry or school placement service.
- Take a civil service test or other pre-employment test.
- Participate in a program or activity offered through the Pennsylvania CareerLink®
The OUC provides a form for you to use to keep track of your job search activity. You will need to keep track because the state monitors your job search and may ask to see evidence of your activity at any time. If they find you have not made a good faith effort to find work, you may lose your benefits and a right to receive full benefits in the future.
You can find information about the work search requirement in the PA Unemployment Handbook. However, if you regularly apply for work you should not be in jeopardy of losing benefits.
Waivers to the requirement
The state allows benefit recipients to waive the work search requirement upon request and approval. You must show that the requirement would be unfair or oppressive or otherwise inconsistent with the purposes of the unemployment insurance law. The waiver request form is available online.
Part-time Employment While Receiving Benefits
The state allows you to work while receiving benefits. For example, you may file a claim for benefits if your employer significantly reduces your wages (if you are otherwise eligible). You may also file if your employer dismissed you but you kept a part-time job elsewhere.
You may earn up to 30% of your WBA before you will see your benefits reduced. The state will reduce your benefits dollar-for-dollar any amount above that 30% threshold.
Reductions in benefit payments
There are other factors that may affect the WBA each time to request a biweekly payment. They include:
- Child support payments owed (requires a court or administrative order)
- Pensions paid by a base-period employer
- Holiday or Vacation Pay (usually occurs upon the initial payment)
- Whether you choose to have the 10% tax deduction applied to your WBA
Pennsylvania law requires the state to reduce all benefit payments if the Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund falls below a certain level. The rule became effective in 2013. With the current fund under audit, disruptions or reductions may continue. The reduction is 1.7% of the WBA after all other deductions have been taken, if any.
Reasons for Denials of Benefits
The OUC will deny benefits if you fail to meet the wage earnings requirements. You will have the opportunity to request a redetermination of your base period wages after you receive the Notice of Financial Determination.
If you do meet the earnings requirement, the OUC will conduct an investigation into your separation from work. Issues regarding separation are the most frequent causes of a denial of benefits.
If your actions or decisions caused your separation from work, the state will deny benefits.
If you quit your job without a good cause connected to the work, the state will deny benefits. You may quit because you could not get transportation to work (and your workplace location did not change). This is not a good cause because getting to work is your responsibility. You may quit because you could not get childcare for a school age child. This is a difficult situation, but the cause for quitting is not because of something your employer did or failed to do.
If you are dismissed from your job because of a repeated violation of your employer’s policy, the state will deny benefits, especially if your employer gave you warnings regarding your conduct. Sometimes, a one-time violation of an employer’s policy may be disqualifying. Any conduct considered to show a disregard for the employer’s interests might be considered “misconduct connected to work.”
Some issues that could disqualify you from receiving benefits may not be related to the wage requirement or separation. If you are unable or unavailable to work, you may be disqualified. If you quit looking for work while you are receiving benefits, the OUC may discontinue payments.
Quit and Still Eligible
While quits are normally disqualifying, if the OUC finds you quit for a good cause, you may still be eligible to receive benefits. Your employer will have done something or failed to do something to leave you with no other choice but to leave work. Examples of this “constructive discharge” include:
The workplace moved too far to make it reasonable for you to attend work
Your employer failed to address serious safety concerns after you or others made them aware
You were asked to work without pay for a significant period
You were subject to harassment
You will have to show that you made a good faith effort to remedy the situation and keep your job.
In certain circumstances, matters not directly related to work may be a “good cause” to quit. For example, a good cause to quit would be that you had to leave home because of a domestic violence situation.
Fired and Still Eligible
In some circumstances, you may be able to show that you were fired but the reason you were fired did not amount to “misconduct connected to your work.” Being fired for a one-time violation of a policy, a mistake in judgement that doesn’t suggest recklessness or the inability to perform your duties are not likely to be judged as misconduct.
What Happens When the State Denies Benefits
You may appeal any decision issued by the OUC. You will receive information on how to file the appeal with your Notice of Determination. You will have 15 days from the mailing date of the notice in which to file the appeal.
If you are denied benefits, please visit our section on appealing benefits decision in Pennsylvania.
Get information on filing a claim directly from the OUC web pages.
Read the laws that control the Unemployment Compensation system.
Stay updated on the UC fund audit and efforts to remedy the problems with local media.