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$600 weekly supplement may not be enough, MVUC director says
Barney Oursler, director of the Mon Valley Umemployed Committee, testifies at an Allegheny County Sanitary Authority hearing in 2012. (Clean Rivers Pittsburgh via YouTube)
Nearly 405,000 Pennsylvanians filed an initial claim for unemployment compensation in the last week of March, according to the U.S. Employment and Training Administration. A month earlier, the number was a little over 12,000.
Barney Oursler, director of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, says he’s “blown away by the number of people desperately trying to get through and apply for unemployment.”
MVUC is a non-profit that aims to help unemployed and dislocated workers gain access to the benefits they need to remake their lives. The organization started in the early 1970s and played a key role defending workers during the steel industry collapse in the 1980s.
Today, Oursler and MVUC are helping area residents deal with the unemployment crisis spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting closure of many businesses.
“At this point, with the lack of clarity of how long this is going to last, we are telling people to sign up for unemployment,” Oursler said.
With the federal unemployment supplement of $600 per week slated to last until the end of July, Oursler said he is not sure that that will be enough, depending on the severity of the pandemic in the coming months.
He is encouraging people to contact their political leaders and demand that the supplement be extended for as long as there is long-term unemployment, on top of the 13-week extension in place right now.
More immediately, with Pennsylvania unemployment office phone lines flooded, Oursler is encouraging everybody who can to apply online to ease the pressure on unemployment office staff.
While Pennsylvania is the fifth-most populous state in the country, the state has the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate.
Oursler says this is most likely because Pennsylvania shut down early in response to COVID-19 compared to other states, and its definition of “essential business” is more strict than other states.
One upside, Oursler said, is that the inevitable influx of patients to hospitals may be much more manageable in Pennsylvania.
Despite the unprecedented challenges, Oursler sees some positive developments: For the first time ever, the government is recognizing unemployment from self-employed jobs such as ride-share services. Such a policy is long overdue, he said, and he is glad these types of employees are being recognized.
There is also a temporary suspension on mortgage foreclosure and a suspension of evictions for failing to pay rent during the crisis.
However, “when that suspension ends, you’re going to be behind and there is no mechanism to get caught up,” Oursler said, adding that voters need to keep pressure on elected officials to continue these policies after the crisis has ended.
Nick Zurawsky is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published April 12, 2020.