Along with the Penn State Center Pittsburgh, Senator Fontana co-hosted the Hilltop Urban Farm tour and presentation on Nov. 18. This project is a unique collaboration among numerous local organizations to establish a sustainable urban farm system that integrates agriculture, food access, community and economic development, green infrastructure, and research. Senator Fontana is pictured here with Deno De Ciantis, Director – Penn State Center Pittsburgh; Maureen Hogan, Extension District Director – Penn State Center Pittsburgh; Richard Roush, Dean of the College of Agriculture – Penn State University; Sarah Ashley Baxendell, Project Manager, Greenspace Asset Development – Hilltop Alliance; Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa.
Re-Elected to Leadership
I was humbled and honored last week when Senate Democrats unanimously re-elected me to serve as the Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman for the coming two-year session (2017-18). The position of caucus chairman sets the daily caucus agenda and leads the discussion on bills that are under consideration on the Senate floor. In continuing in this role, I hope to focus additional attention on creating more jobs, rebuilding our state’s aging infrastructure, ensuring a quality education for our children, curbing property taxes and working with local leaders to continue Allegheny County’s growth.
Unemployment Fix for Seasonal Workers
The unemployment system is funded in part by a federal payroll tax on employees and employers. During the Great Recession the nation recently experienced, the state fund received extra federal money to help Pennsylvania process a spike in claims during higher unemployment. In 2012, a major overhaul of the unemployment law known as Act 60 was passed as a way to help the commonwealth pay back $4 billion in borrowed money from the federal government. The eligibility change lowered the portion of annual income from 63 percent to 50.5 percent that a worker could make in one quarter of a calendar year and still remain eligible for benefits. The goal of this change was to exclude workers who weren’t actively in the labor force, like seasonal amusement park workers and lifeguards, from receiving unemployment pay.
However, an unexpected consequence of this change was that thousands of other seasonal employees, like construction workers, were ruled ineligible to receive jobless pay as a result.
Recently, Governor Wolf signed into law a fix for certain seasonal workers while at the same time trimming benefits. Under Act 144, the cap is returned to the 63 percent that someone can earn of their wages in one quarter to maintain eligibility. The previous law also mandated 49.5 percent of wages made outside the highest quarter of earnings for an individual to receive unemployment which was considered high. The new law lowers the bar to 37 percent that will expand access and implement cost savings.
Another cost savings mechanism is the reduction to the unemployment compensation trust fund through an across-the-board two percent reduction in benefits. The Governor’s Office estimates this will save the state $44 million annually. Penalties will also be increased for people who knowingly make false statements to claim unemployment benefits and interest rates on unpaid employer contributions under Act 144.
Because of passage of this new law, it will ensure that 44,000 workers are eligible for unemployment compensation benefits if they lose their job or cannot find work. I supported this measure because I understand how important unemployment pay is for construction workers who often need and use these funds during the winter months when work is difficult to find.
Failure to Pass Legislation Could Lead to Delays in Unemployment Compensation
As I have already mentioned, during the Great Recession, Pennsylvania received extra federal money to help our state pay unemployment claims. More recently, the federal funding funneled to the commonwealth has declined as our economy starts to recover. For this reason, the General Assembly passed Act 34 in 2013 that redirected $178.3 million of Unemployment Compensation Funds to the Unemployment Compensation Service and Infrastructure Improvement Fund. Over four years, this allocation was used for administrative purposes like modernizing the 40-year old unemployment compensation computer system which attributed to the long wait times for decisions and hours spent on hold.
The law allowing those transfers sunsets at the end of this year, and the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry has said they are not done with system modernization efforts. Not reinstating money will put these efforts behind as well as the improvements they have accomplished with day-to-day operations.
House Bill 2375 (HB 2375) was introduced that would transfer $57.5 million and extend the funding deadline for the Service and Infrastructure Improvement Fund through 2017. The legislation passed the House of Representatives and at the committee level on the Senate side, but the Majority Party decided against bringing HB 2375 up for a full vote by the Senate. For this reason, the measure cannot be signed into law and will need to be reintroduced come January when the new legislative session begins.
As a result, the Department of Labor and Industry announced on Friday three out of the eight Unemployment Compensation Service Centers will be closed and 280 employees will be laid off effective December 19. The three centers include Allentown, Altoona and Lancaster. However, the centers at Duquesne, Erie, Harrisburg, Indiana and Scranton will hopefully remain open. Additional layoff notices are expected for up to 170 other employees this week.
This is especially unsettling being unemployment claims usually increase during fall and proceed into early winter. Not only will closing these centers and furloughing workers result in additional delays and inconveniences for the thousands of residents looking for their unemployment check to get them through the holiday season, but the department has also warned that this could bring the system to the brink of collapse.
I am disappointed in the Majority Party leadership’s lack of compassion that makes it harder for not only out-of-work Pennsylvanians to receive benefits, but the state will now be adding additional employees to the unemployment payroll. We should be passing laws to make the system more efficient, not jeopardizing operations.
All Senate offices will be closed on Thursday, Nov. 24 and Friday, Nov. 25 in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday. My offices will re-open on Monday, Nov. 28 as scheduled. I wish everyone a very Happy Thanksgiving.
Dispose of Unused Medications
Anyone wishing to dispose of unwanted and/or unused medications can do so today at my Brookline office, from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. as part of Allegheny County Sheriff William Mullen’s Project D.U.M.P. initiative. My Brookline office is located at 932 Brookline Boulevard.
Sheriff Mullen recently implemented an initiative to help residents safely eliminate unused and expired narcotic medications. Project D.U.M.P. (Disposal of Unused Medications Properly), allows citizens to contact a Sheriff’s Office Evidence Custodian who will report to their residence and take possession of any unwanted medications. The Sheriff’s Office established this program to help curtail opioid and heroin related overdoses and overdose deaths in Allegheny County. I am pleased that he is taking this program on the road and will be in Brookline today!
The Sheriff’s Office continues to stress that drug take-back programs are among the safest options for disposing of unused prescription narcotics, and that medications such as Vicodin, Percocet, and Oxycontin should not be thrown in the trash, flushed down the toilet, or left around the house for others to access.
LIHEAP is Open
I want to remind everyone that the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services is accepting applications for this season’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The program helps low income families pay their heating bills. You can apply and check the status of your application on the state’s COMPASS website. You can also pick up an application in my district offices or download one yourself from the DHS LIHEAP website. Completed paper applications should be returned to the Allegheny County Assistance Office, 5947 Penn Avenue, 4th Floor, Pittsburgh, PA, 15206.
Funding for LIHEAP is provided by the federal government and eligibility is based on the Federal Poverty Income Guidelines. The income limits for this season are as follows:
After your application is received you will receive a written notice explaining your eligibility and the amount of assistance you will receive. Payments are generally sent directly to a utility company or fuel provider and will be credited to your heating account. Crisis grants may also be available if you have an emergency situation and are in jeopardy of losing your heat. For more information, please contact the LIHEAP hotline at 1-866-857-7095.
Funding for Water Quality Improvement Projects
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is accepting applications for projects under the Growing Greener Plus program. Up to $18 million in grants will be available for eligible projects that restore and protect Pennsylvania watersheds and reclaim and conserve surface mining lands.
Examples of eligible projects include streambank fencing, streamside forest buffers, mine land reclamation and reforestation, and other projects designed to reduce non-point sources of water pollution. Grants are available for county and municipal governments, county conservation districts, watershed organizations, and other organizations involved in the protection and restoration of Pennsylvania’s environment. More information on eligible organizations can be found on the DEP website at www.dep.pa.gov/growinggreener.
The Growing Greener Plus program covers grants eligible under four separate grant programs: Growing Greener; 319 Nonpoint Source (NPS); Surface Mining Conservation, and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) Bond Forfeiture; and Abandoned Mine Drainage Set-Aside grants. All grants can be applied for with the same forms, found on the DEP site. Applications are due by Friday, Jan. 13, 2017. More information is available at www.dep.pa.gov/growinggreener.
Small Business Saturday
This Saturday marks the seventh anniversary of what has become Small Business Saturday across the country. This annual event began in 2010 with the help of American Express, and is held each year on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, as an awareness campaign to support small businesses in neighborhoods across America.
Locally, many communities within the 42nd Senatorial District are participating in Small Business Saturday with deals, sales, and other events. There are some great local business districts and terrific local merchants with much to offer to a wide variety of clientele. American Express has established a site, https://www.americanexpress.com/us/small-business/shop-small/, where small businesses can register and shoppers can search for small businesses in their area. To find participating small businesses in your area, just click on the “Find Small Businesses” tab at the top of the home page, and then enter your location to get started.
Did You Know…
Did you know that in the United States approximately 70 percent of small businesses are owned and operated by a single individual and that 78 percent of small businesses employ only one person?
The Dormont Public Library is hosting its second annual Holiday House Tour on Sunday, Dec. 4 from 3 – 7 p.m. The Holiday House Tour is a festive tour celebrating the distinctive mixture of classical and contemporary highlighted in participating homes and businesses. This year’s tour will focus on the various transformations and traditions that capture the spirit of the holidays and bring each structure to life. In addition to a wide array of unique decorations, selected stops on the tour will also be accompanied by a variety of baked goods and festive music for guests to enjoy.
Tickets for the House Tour are available at the library and at http://dormontlibrary.org/. Tickets will also be available for purchase on the day of the House Tour from 2 – 5 p.m. at the library. Proceeds from this event benefit the Dormont Public Library. For more information, please call the library at 412-531-8754 or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is estimated that Americans eat roughly 535 million pounds of turkey on Thanksgiving each year.
Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana
| Brookline District
932 Brookline Blvd.
Pittsburgh, PA 15226
Weekdays – 9 am – 5 pm
543 Main Capitol
Harrisburg, PA 17120
Weekdays – 8:30 am – 5 pm
524 Pine Hollow Road
Weekdays – 10 am – 4 pm
| Beechview Satellite
1660 Broadway Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15216
Tuesdays – 10 am – 4 pm
|Northside (Mobile Office)
1230 Federal Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15212
Wednesdays – 10 am – 4 pm
|Lawrenceville (Mobile Office)
279 Fisk Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15201
Thursdays - 11 am - 4 pm