In Pennsylvania, as in every other state, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the employment landscape for workers in all industries. When the first cases began to appear in the early weeks of March 2020, many businesses, from offices to restaurants and retail stores, shuttered leaving millions out of work. Unemployment insurance (UI) claims soared, so much so that the federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the American Rescue Plan Act to increase and extend benefits, and to give them to those who wouldn't usually receive them. While pandemic unemployment is improving, millions are still out of work and must stay on top of UI's many changes.
How Pennsylvania Calculates UI Benefits
Pennsylvania's Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) determines applicant eligibility for UI benefits. Claimants must meet three main requirements to collect UI:
- Past wages must meet specific thresholds.
- Termination must have occurred through no fault of the claimant.
- Claimant must show willingness and availability to work, and must actively seek employment while collecting benefits.
Pennsylvania calculates regular unemployment compensation the way most other states do – through a base period of the first four of five complete calendar quarters before the person has filed for benefits. For example, the base period for applicants filing a claim in October 2021 would be from June 1, 2020 to May 31, 2021.
During the base period, applicants must meet each of these requirements:
- They must have made a minimum of $116 weekly in earnings for at least 18 weeks.
- They must have made a minimum of $1,688 in earnings during their highest quarter.
- They must have made a minimum of $3,391 in total base period earnings.
How Termination Affects Eligibility
How a person lost their job will affect their UI eligibility. If termination occurred through no fault of the applicant due to a reduction in force or a lack of work, they are eligible for UI. Fired applicants usually cannot get benefits, but there are exceptions to this rule. Someone fired for their inability to perform their job duties or who wasn't a good fit may receive payments. However, if firing occurred due to misconduct, which the state defines as an intentional act by an employee against an employer's rules, failure to meet the reasonable standards of an employer or frequent carelessness showing disregard for an employer, they will not get benefits.
People who quit their jobs are usually not eligible for UI unless they voluntarily leave work for good cause. This means they must have a compelling reason for leaving and have made every effort to stay in their job. Examples of good cause reasons to quit include:
- Limitations due to health issues for which an employer could not accommodate the employee.
- Relocation of a spouse.
- Loss of a viable means of transportation with no other alternative.
Pennsylvania's UI Weekly Benefit Rate
Unemployed Pennsylvanians are eligible for benefits of up to $572 per week. A claimant's weekly benefit amount is about 50 percent of their average weekly earnings. In times of low or normal unemployment, benefits are available for a maximum of 26 weeks, with all claims in effect for one year. This can change in times of high unemployment, as it has during the coronavirus pandemic.
Pennsylvania also allows additional payments for dependents. The DLI gives an extra $5 each week for a dependent spouse and $3 for a dependent child. Those who have no dependent spouse get an additional $5 each week for one dependent child and $3 for an additional child. Dependent allowances will not exceed $8 a week. The state defines a dependent spouse as a husband or wife living with, and supported by, the applicant at the time they file for UI. A dependent child is under 18 and unmarried, or if over 18, cannot work due to a disability.
The Federal CARES Act and American Rescue Plan
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic caused thousands of Pennsylvanians to lose work overnight. This sudden high employment forced the federal government to create the CARES Act to subsidize the DLI and other state UI agencies. The CARES Act included programs to give benefits to those who wouldn't usually receive them. One such program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), gave benefits to independent contractors, while the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) fund extended regular benefits to laid-off employees by an extra 13 weeks.
The CARES Act ended on March 13, 2021, but its programs remain through the Biden administration's American Rescue Plan Act, which went into effect as the CARES Act ended. The American Rescue Plan Act extends both PEUC and PUA benefits until the first week of September 2021. It also gives an additional $300 weekly to UI, PUA, and PEUC beneficiaries, as many people have not yet gone back to work.
Applying for Benefits in Pennsylvania
To file an initial claim, applicants must submit certain information:
- Social Security number.
- Contact information, including address, phone number and email address.
- PIN or Personal Identification Number (only if they have filed for UI in the past).
- Bank account information (if they chose direct deposit).
- Information about their former employer, including contact information, UI account number (if known), start and end dates of the applicant's employment, reasons for job termination, and severance or pension information (if applicable).
Applicants can file claims in one of several ways:
Receiving the First Benefit Payment
Those who file online will get their confirmation via email, which will include information they need to continue certifying their claim. Those who receive a confirmation letter by mail should keep it in a safe place; it includes a four-digit PIN, which they must use to access their account and certify continued claims. Confirmation letters take seven to 10 business days to arrive.
Claimants also receive a financial determination letter, which arrives in 10 to 15 business days from the date of applying. It shows:
- Date of the application and the date benefits will expire.
- Weekly benefit amount, number of eligible weeks, and the process for determining the calculation.
- How much a claimant will receive when fully unemployed and how to estimate their benefits if they go back to work part-time.
Continuing Certification of Benefits
Claimants must continue to certify for benefits for each week in which they are partially or fully without work. Weeks begin on Sunday and end on Saturday. Most applicants will file claims every two weeks, but certify their eligibility for each week one at a time. They can submit their weekly certification online from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sunday, and from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday. Claimants can also certify by calling 888-255-4728 from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sunday and 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday.
During a time of normal or low unemployment, claimants must look for work. They must register with the Pennsylvania CareerLink system within 30 days after filing their initial claim. They must also conduct an active work search each week and report their activities to the DIL. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, work search requirements have been suspended.
How to Receive UI Payments
Pennsylvania allows claimants to receive benefits either by direct deposit or a state-issued debit card mailed to them within three days after determining their financial eligibility. This card is valid for three years. Those who have a card from a previously existing claim within that time will not get a new one. However, those who have a debit card that is more than three years old must request a new one.
Claimants interested in getting payments via direct deposit must input their bank information when first applying for UI. This should include the routing number (the first nine digits at the bottom of a check) and an account number, which can be from five to 17 digits and may appear in different places on a check, depending on the issuing bank.
Appealing a Refusal of UI
If the DLI denies a claimant's benefits, they have up to 15 days after the date on the determination to appeal. They can do so online or by mail, fax or in person at any PA CareerLink location. While the appeals process continues, claimants should keep filing for benefits because they will get their UI earnings retroactively if they win the appeal.
Once the claimant files the appeal, the DLI will schedule a hearing with a UI referee, and the claimant will receive written notice of the hearing, telling them when and how it will occur. During the hearing, the referee will review the case and mail the decision to the claimant. A losing claimant has 15 days to appeal to the UC Board of Review. If they lose the second appeal, they can appeal that decision with the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.
Stopping or Pausing Payments
Claimants who return to working full time must stop collecting benefits, which would be illegal. All they need to do is stop filing their biweekly claim. Those who become unemployed again before a claim expires can reopen it. If they become unemployed after the claim's expiration date, they must file a new claim. Part-time employees must report their earnings when certifying for benefits. If they earn less than their weekly benefit amount, the DLI will make up the difference. If they make more, they won't receive payments for that week.
Failure to report earnings is fraud. The DLI can uncover fraud by cross-matching its information with the Social Security Administration and with federal and state new hire lists. On occasion, the department even gets tips from the public, which it will investigate.
If a claimant fails to report income, or reports less income than they actually make, they not only may have to pay the money back but may also face criminal prosecution, including penalties and possible jail time. In the event that the DLI asks a claimant to return the money, it can garnish their tax refunds and prevent them from receiving UI benefits in the future.
- Office of Unemployment Compensation: How to File
- Office of Unemployment Compensation: File an Initial Claim
- Office of Unemployment Compensation: C Initial Claim Instructions
- Office of Unemployment Compensation: Fraud & Identity Theft
- Office of Unemployment Compensation: Work Search/Work Registration FAQs
- Office of Unemployment Compensation: Filing for UC Benefits
- Office of Unemployment Compensation: Weekly Benefit Rate
- NOLO: How to Appeal an Unemployment Denial in Pennsylvania
- NOLO: Collecting Unemployment Benefits in Pennsylvania
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.