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Pennsylvania House Approves Bill for Striking Worker Pay

The measure would grant unemployment benefits to striking workers by amending existing state law. Republicans oppose the measure, making the bill’s future in the GOP-controlled Senate uncertain.

United Auto Worker Local 677 members on strike
United Auto Worker Local 677 members strike in front of the fenced off, Mack plant in Lower Swatara Township, Pa., Oct. 11, 2023.
Mark Pynes |
The Pennsylvania state House approved a bill Wednesday, Nov. 15, that would grant unemployment benefits to striking workers - a move Democrats said would level the playing field for employees, while Republicans said the measure would violate the intent of the benefit program.

The measure passed Wednesday on a 106-to-97 vote, getting support from every Democrat as well as four Republicans; it now heads to the GOP-controlled Senate, where its future is less certain.

The bill amends Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation law to stipulate that striking workers are not considered to have voluntarily quit. Leaving work on one’s own accord typically makes a person ineligible to receive unemployment compensation.

The bill also removes existing language in the law that says workers who are unemployed due to a labor dispute are only eligible for benefits if they have no direct interest in the dispute and are not members of an organization participating in the dispute – a clause which currently locks union members out of benefits during strikes.

“Employers can hire replacement workers, but striking workers must deal with the crushing financial burdens,” said Rep. Mandy Steele, D- Allegheny County, the bill’s primary sponsor. “This is not putting a thumb on the scale in negotiations, rather this is to balance the scale.”

The federal government enforces specific rules regarding collective bargaining disputes, including strikes, and “if the right to strike is a legal guarantee from the federal government then there should be economic supports in place” for those exercising the right, Steele argued.

Republicans said the proposal would violate the core concept of unemployment compensation, in which employees pay into a trust fund while they are working and receive pay from the fund when they find themselves involuntarily unemployed.

“When you choose to go on strike you are violating that premise, you are making that decision,” said Rep. Ryan Mackenzie, R- Lehigh County.

While workers have a right to strike, “what is not their right is to ask other hardworking Pennsylvanians to pay for them when they choose to go on strike,” Mackenzie said, and “unless you come up with a way to actually pay for this, it’s just a benefit drawdown for some workers that all workers end up paying for.”

That argument falsely “supposes that it’s your fault you’re on strike, not your employers,” countered Rep. David Delloso, D- Delaware County, with several Democrats pointing to the more than year-long strike at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The idea is that “we’re going to supplement you with your own money while you bargain with your sometimes not-in-good-faith employer,” Delloso said.

Pennsylvania’s unemployment fund – like every other in the nation – is building its balances back up after COVID-19, which quickly rendered those funds insolvent and reliant on loans from the federal government.

The commonwealth’s unemployment fund balance cracked the $1 billion mark this month, according to federal finance records, three times the cash it had a year prior. However, officials said in 2020 that the state’s pre-pandemic balance was roughly $3.2 billion, a little more than halfway to the $6 billion goal for full solvency, according to the Courier-Times.

New York and New Jersey have similar striking worker unemployment provisions as the one which passed the Pennsylvania House on Wednesday. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently vetoed such a proposal, saying it would exacerbate the state fund’s already-high pandemic debt payments.

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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