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Jobless benefits drop as rate declines

Bob Bauder
| Thursday, March 31, 2011

Six weeks of unemployment compensation benefits equal an extra month of rent for Stormy DiBucci.

DiBucci, 19, of Bellevue is among thousands of Pennsylvanians potentially impacted by the phase-out of a federal program providing the long-term unemployed with an additional six weeks of benefits.

"Potentially, it would mean being able to live a month and a half without having to worry," said DiBucci, who was laid off from her job at a Downtown restaurant in October and has relied on unemployment compensation to pay the bills. "I don't want to have to rely on that, but it's scary that it wouldn't be there anymore if I would need it."

The federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program's fourth level of benefits, which becomes available when states average an 8.5 percent unemployment rate over three months, will end Saturday, said state Department of Labor and Industry spokesman David Smith, dropping the maximum benefit period from 99 weeks to 93.

Most people collecting unemployment benefits now and anyone signing up in the future could be impacted, he said, adding that the program would be restored should the unemployment rate again average 8.5 percent or more over three months.

Smith said the good news is that unemployment is declining. But the program's limits will give the unemployed less time to find a job.

"These programs were put in place by the federal government to deal with the recession and the effects of that," Smith said. "As the unemployment rate improves, the federal benefits will begin to be rolled back. That's why this is happening."

Labor and Industry reported that Pennsylvania had an average unemployment rate of 8.4 percent for the three-month period ended in January. A total of 511,000 residents were unemployed in February -- down 14,000 from January -- and about 447,800 of them were collecting unemployment benefits. The state's February unemployment rate dropped to 8 percent from 8.3 percent in January.

First-time claimants will be eligible for 26 weeks of state unemployment, followed by 47 weeks of federally funded compensation and an additional 20 weeks of extended state benefits. The federal program previously included four separate tiers or benefit periods: 20 weeks, 14 weeks, 13 weeks and six weeks, respectively.

After Saturday, residents no longer will be eligible for the fourth tier, but they can still sign up for extended state unemployment benefits.

The state's extended program, which is also funded by the federal government, requires a switch from a Web-based application and direct deposit to mail. Labor and Industry will notify those residents losing their benefits by mail with instructions on how to apply for extended benefits.

"There could be a bit of a delay between (the federal program) and extended benefits," Smith said. "We just ask people to be patient."

The change will not impact compensation levels, he said. The maximum weekly unemployment check in Pennsylvania is $573. The average is $310.

Federal benefits could be cut further should the state's unemployment rate continue to decline. Seven weeks of the 20 weeks of federally funded state extended benefit would expire if the rate drops below an 8 percent average for three months. The remaining 13 weeks of extended benefits would end if the unemployment rate drops below 110 percent of the rate in the same month two years prior, or below 6.5 percent.

The first two tiers would expire at year's end unless Congress reauthorizes them. The third tier would terminate if the unemployment rate averages less than 6 percent over three months.

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