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Pa. Senate approves $15 million for struggling unemployment system

HARRISBURG -- The Senate on Wednesday took a step that proponents hope will restore jobs to the state's unemployment compensation system and cut down on long waits for jobless workers seeking benefits.

By a 39-8 margin, the chamber passed a proposal to allow $15 million from employee contributions to the unemployment compensation system to be used to improve the delivery of services to people filing claims. The measure still needs to be approved by the House and Gov. Wolf.

"This is a temporary funding bill meant to alleviate the backlog and ... put some people back to work that are there to help the folks who need that unemployment check," said Sen. Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland), who sponsored the bill. "Chances are if you are applying for unemployment you don't have two weeks', maybe even one week, worth of income to buy your food, to pay your utility bills."

The move follows a politically charged dispute last fall in which the Senate declined to approve a bill that would have allowed a larger sum to be used on the unemployment compensation system, leading the Wolf administration to close three unemployment call centers and lay off nearly 500 workers. In the weeks that followed, wait times for callers trying to reach the compensation centers stretched to two hours.

How quickly the House could act – and how the money could be spent – is unresolved. The chairman of the House Labor & Industry Committee, Rep. Rob Kauffman (R., Franklin), said in an email that the Senate concept is "on the right track" and that he expects committee action soon.

A spokesman for Wolf said the administration is continuing to evaluate what it would do with the money — including whether workers who were laid off would be rehired.

"The governor would prefer a long-term solution, but this is a good step toward that goal," spokesman J.J. Abbott said.

In January, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale announced an audit of the fund at the center of the unemployment compensation dispute. A spokeswoman said the results are expected by the end of April.

The state's unemployment compensation trust fund provides benefit payments for up to 26 weeks to people who have lost their job through no fault of their own.