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Senator Wayne D. Fontana

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A Financial Lifeline for Local Bars and Restaurants

In late July, the southwestern Senate Democrats met with the Pennsylvania Tavern and Restaurant Association and bar and restaurants owners to discuss the industry’s need for relief after experiencing significant financial loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown.  It was evident in this meeting that our local bars and restaurants aren’t just a gathering place to grab a bite to eat or socialize, but a major employer and economic driver for so many of our neighbors, friends and communities. As a result of this meeting, a comprehensive proposal has been announced that includes a $100 million grant program to retail liquor licensees using federal CARES Act funds, as well as a suite of policy changes to financially benefit these struggling businesses. 

Relief Plan for Restaurants & Bars

The seven-point plan to provide relief to Pennsylvania’s bars and restaurants includes the following components:

  1. Carve out $100 million from the remaining CARES Act funds to provide grants to retail liquor licensees for revenue and capital losses experienced during shutdown periods. The program would be housed within the Department of Community and Economic Development’s (DCED) COVID-19 Relief Pennsylvania Statewide Small Business Assistance program, utilizing our Commonwealth’s robust network of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) to distribute the funds quickly and efficiently. 
  2. Increase the wholesale licensee discount for wine & spirit purchases from the Pennsylvania’s Liquor Control Board (PLCB) from 10% to 15% through June 30, 2021. The discount would gradually reduce back to 10% by June 30, 2022. The total savings to restaurants, taverns, and clubs would exceed $40 million.
  3. Waive all license renewal and permit fees that are paid by restaurants and taverns for one year from the date of implementation. The total savings to restaurants, taverns, and clubs would exceed $35 million.
  4. Eliminate late fees and penalties for delayed sales tax payments through June 30, 2021. This would allow restaurants, taverns, and clubs to postpone, without fee, sales tax payments. Restaurants, taverns, and clubs with delinquent accounts would be able to pay them off by June 30, 2021.
  5. Allow retail liquor licensees to expand their licensed premise outdoors to non-contiguous areas of the licensee. Many communities have successfully implemented dining expansion on a case-by-case basis, so language at the state-level is necessary for consistency and safety. This would allow restaurants and taverns to potentially double or triple their capacity.
  6. Eliminate the $500 off-premise catering permit fee during the declared state of emergency. The pandemic has caused catering events to change when and how they are held. This would give restaurants, taverns, and catering companies greater flexibility and allow them to expand their options to consumers.
  7. Clarify ambiguous language in business interruption insurance policies to ensure claims filed during the COVID-19 pandemic are quickly and efficiently paid to businesses (Senate Bill 1127).

It’s important to note that under our proposal, liquor licensees that are cited for violating public health orders or the liquor code would be subject to forfeiture of any grants received or any fees waived by the PLCB.

My hopes are that this plan extends a much needed lifeline to our community restaurants and bars with the goal of them being able to recover from the consequences of this pandemic.  I also want to encourage my constituency, if financially possible, to continue to support these businesses by ordering takeout or delivery during these difficult times.  I understand that many families are doing whatever they can just to hang on and I like to remind everyone that we are all in this together. 

Rent/Mortgage Relief Program

Financial Assistance for Renters and Homeowners

I want to remind everyone about the program being administered by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) that assists homeowners and renters who have been financially impacted by the economic slowdown related to the coronavirus pandemic. Individuals impacted can access applications for rent and mortgage relief by visiting the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency’s website at www.phfa.org. PHFA is administering both programs. Please click in the red banner on the website to access the applications and other helpful background information.

The Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed in March, provided $3.9 billion for Pennsylvania and is intended to help people hurt economically during the pandemic. Senate Democrats strongly pushed that money be invested in a program that keeps homeowners and renters in their homes. In late May, the General Assembly directed $175 million of these CARES dollars to PHFA to provide assistance for struggling renters and homeowners. The portion for rent assistance is at least $150 million, and $25 million was set aside for mortgage assistance.

For renters to be eligible for financial assistance under the CARES Rent Relief Program (RRP), they will need to document at least a 30 percent reduction in annual income since March 1 related to COVID-19, or they must have become unemployed after March 1. If unemployed, they must have filed for unemployment compensation with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. Their household income cannot exceed the Area Median Income for their county of residence, adjusted for the number of people in their home.

Renters who qualify may receive assistance equal to 100 percent of their monthly rent up to $750 a month for a maximum of six months of assistance for the time period between March 1 and Nov. 30, 2020. Payments will be made to their landlord on their behalf. Renters or landlords can apply for rent relief for apartment tenants, but renters are responsible for submitting all the documents needed to ensure their eligibility.

Homeowners who became unemployed after March 1 or who suffered at least a 30 percent reduction in annual income due to reduced work hours and wages related to COVID-19 may be eligible for financial assistance to help with missed mortgage payments. To qualify for the Pandemic Mortgage Assistance Program (PMAP), they must be an owner-occupant of their residence, the dwelling must consist of one or two separate units, the mortgage must be at least 30 days delinquent, and the homeowner’s annual household income must not exceed the Area Median Income for their county of residence, adjusted for the number of people in their home.

The assistance available for homeowners can be up to $1,000 a month for a maximum period of six months. The time period eligible for assistance is for mortgage payments owed from March 2020 through Dec. 2020, however any CARES assistance provided must be disbursed by Nov. 30, 2020. Financial assistance payments through this program will be made directly to the mortgagee. Homeowners or their lenders can apply for mortgage relief, but homeowners are responsible for providing all the documents needed to determine their eligibility.

The agency’s call center is available weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to assist the public and help with questions about the programs. The toll-free number is 1-855-U-Are-Home (827-3466). Callers should listen for the prompt mentioning CARES assistance for renters and homeowners. The county organizations to which CARES applications are submitted will also have webpages offering useful information.

The CARES funding for renters and homeowners must be completely distributed by Nov. 30, 2020, although it is expected the assistance will be exhausted before the deadline because of the tremendous need by people hurt financially by the pandemic.

Mail-in Ballots

Mail-in Ballots

The Pennsylvania Department of State is accepting applications from voters for mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 General Election. Applications can be requested online at www.votespa.com and must be received by the Allegheny County Elections Division by 5 p.m. on Oct. 27. But don’t wait! If you’d like to vote mail by this fall, you can apply today.

In addition to applying online, voters may also download a paper application by clicking here or visiting www.votespa.com. The completed paper application should be mailed to the Allegheny County Elections Division at: 542 Forbes Avenue, Suite 609, Pittsburgh, PA 15219.

Last week, the governor announced that anyone applying for a mail-in ballot will receive a postage-paid envelope along with their ballot.  

As a reminder, unlike absentee ballots, which require an excuse that includes illness, disability or a known absence from the municipality where the voter lives, any voter can apply for a mail-in ballot.

When applying for a mail-in ballot, every voter is afforded the opportunity to a make an “annual mail-in ballot request” on the mail-in ballot application. Any voter checking the box for an annual mail-in request, will then receive a mail-in ballot for the remainder of the current year and will automatically receive an annual application for mail-in ballots each year.

As an example, anyone who requested to receive the annual mail-in application at any point in 2020 will receive a new mail-in ballot application in February 2021. Once the voter completes that application, they will receive mail-in ballots for any election in 2021. This process will continue year after year unless, or until, the voter asks to be removed. So, the voter will receive an application for a mail-in ballot each year but the voter still needs to complete the application each year in order to receive mail-in ballots for elections in that particular year.  

For 2020, if you requested an annual mail-in ballot before the primary election, then you should receive a mail-in ballot this fall prior to the Nov. 3 general election. If you don’t remember if you selected the annual mail-in option, you can call the Allegheny County Elections Division at 412-350-4500 or you can visit www.votespa.com and track the status of your ballot, or click here to do so.

If you apply for a mail-in ballot for the general election and it turns out you already applied for the annual mail-in ballot earlier this year, your application will simply be marked as a duplicate and you will still receive the mail-in ballot in the fall.

In an effort to simplify the election process in Pennsylvania, in April, I introduced Senate Bill 1129 (SB 1129), legislation that would change Pennsylvania’s voting system so that all elections are conducted entirely by mail. As the June 2 Primary Election demonstrated, mail-in ballots are a safer and more efficient way of voting, especially as we continue to deal with this pandemic.

Under a bipartisan law approved last year, Act 77, Pennsylvanians already have the option of voting by mail. Beginning with this November’s general election, my legislation would conduct all elections exclusively by mail.

SB 1129 would require county election officials to mail ballots along with postage-free return envelopes to all registered voters weeks before an election. Voters could request a replacement ballot if they lose or misplace their ballot. Citizens could mail in their ballot any time prior to election day.

While I continue to support exclusive mail-in voting elections, I want to remind constituents about the availability of the mail-in voting option that currently exists.

Did You Know…

Did you know that nearly 1.5 million voters cast their vote by mail-in or absentee ballot for the 2020 primary election in Pennsylvania which was 17 times the number that voted absentee in the 2016 primary, when approximately 84,000 absentee ballots were cast?

Pennsylvanians Urged to Report Unemployment Benefits Fraud

federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)

The Department of Labor & Industry (L&I) reminds Pennsylvanians of the warning signs associated with the widespread identity theft fraud ring targeting COVID-19 unemployment compensation (UC) benefits programs across the nation. The federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program is the primary target of this sophisticated scam and victims are urged to report instances of fraud to L&I and local police.

L&I continues to work closely with many state and federal partners, including banking and law enforcement officials. That collaboration identified more than 4,000 fraudulent claims in Pennsylvania for PUA benefits and prevented more than $44 million from reaching criminals.

Scam Warning Signs

Pennsylvanians should be aware of the following potentially fraudulent activities related to unemployment compensation benefits:

  • You have not applied for unemployment benefits but receive a check or direct deposit from the Pennsylvania Treasury Department (Treasury) or a ReliaCard debit card issued by US Bank.
  • You receive correspondence from L&I or Treasury about receiving unemployment assistance for which you did not apply.
  • Someone comes to your home that you do not know and tells you that their unemployment assistance check or debit card was mailed to you by mistake.
  • Someone asks you to use your bank account to deposit their unemployment assistance.
  • Someone, in person or electronically, tells you that you are entitled to unemployment assistance and requests your personal identifying information.
  • Someone offers to help you file for unemployment benefits for a fee.
  • Someone claims to be from L&I or another government agency or office and asks for a fee or personal information to complete your application for PUA or other benefits.
  • Any employer that receives notice that a claim has been filed for one or more of your employees who continued working and were not laid off or otherwise unemployed.

If any of these suspicious activities happen to you, do not assist or confront the fraudster.

Report Fraud

Report fraudulent activity regarding Pennsylvania’s unemployment benefits:

  • Online

    • Identity theft – if you suspect or know that someone is using your personal information such as your name, Social Security Number, or date of birth without your knowledge or consent to file for unemployment benefits, complete and submit the Identity Theft Form

    • Unemployment claims fraud – if you know of individuals who are collecting unemployment benefits illegally, including people who are working and not reporting their wages for PA UC benefit purposes; or people who cannot work due to an illness, disability or incarceration, complete and submit the Unemployment Claims Fraud Form.
  • Phone
    • PA Fraud Hotline – 1-800-692-7469
  • Police
    • File a police report with the municipality you resided in at the time the unemployment benefits in question were paid. A copy of the police report must be provided to the Office of Unemployment Compensation.

If you are a victim of identity theft you may also report it to the Federal Trade Commission and start a recovery plan at https://www.identitytheft.gov/.

How to Return Benefit Payments

Individuals who receive unemployment benefits payments that they did not apply for should use the appropriate following methods to return the funds.

  • Paper checks
    • Return to – Department of Treasury Comptroller’s Office
      Attn: Mark Accorsi
      Room 113, Finance Building
      Harrisburg, PA 17120
  • Direct deposits
    • Return to – Department of Labor & Industry
      651 Boas St., Room 500
      Harrisburg, PA 17121
  • ReliaCard debit cards from US Bank
    • Do not activate the debit cards and follow one of these procedures:

        • Your name;
        • Phone number; and
        • Email address.

      Destroy the card after emailing the above information.

      • Return the ReliaCard by mail to:
        Department of Treasury Comptroller’s Office
        Attn: Mark Accorsi
        Room 113, Finance Building
        Harrisburg, PA 17120

Fresh Food Financing Initiative COVID-19 Relief Fund

Fresh Food Financing Initiative COVID-19 Relief FundEarlier this month, the Fresh Food Financing Initiative COVID-19 Relief Fund opened with $10 million available to for-profit, nonprofit, or cooperative entities impacted by COVID-19, including grocery stores, corner stores, convenience stores, neighborhood markets, bodegas, food hubs, mobile markets, farmers markets, on-farm markets, urban farms, and food aggregation centers with a direct connection to direct-to-consumer retail outlets.

To be eligible, more than 50 percent of sales must be from staple and perishable foods to consumers and the retailer must serve customers that live in a low-to-moderate income area. Applicants must also provide access to affordable, high-quality fresh produce, meat and dairy products and other healthy grocery items for low-to-moderate income shoppers, and must accept SNAP and WIC to the maximum extent possible.

In recognition of the disproportionate impacts of both COVID-19 and food apartheid on communities made up of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and especially Black and African American communities, prioritization will be given to businesses owned by minorities and serving low-income BIPOC communities. Additional prioritization criteria include businesses located in or serving a USDA-designated food desert; businesses sourcing and selling Pennsylvania grown or processed products to the extent practicable; and applicants with supplier diversity and offering increased business opportunities for Minority Business Enterprises, Women Business Enterprises, Service-Disabled Veteran Business Enterprises, Veteran Business Enterprises, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Business Enterprises; and Disability-Owned Business Enterprises.

The program is administered by the Department of Agriculture in partnership with the Department of Community and Economic Development. Applications will be accepted through August 14, 2020. Grant funds will be distributed to eligible applicants for impacts related to COVID-19 that have been incurred between March 1, 2020 and November 30, 2020, such as:

  • Higher operating costs related to cleaning and social distancing requirements, including costs related to outside contracting associated with managing social distancing, limited occupancy, and cleaning;
  • Infrastructure improvements including renovation, new construction, or adaptive reuse directly related to COVID-19;
  • Equipment purchases that improve the availability of quality fresh food, such as additional refrigeration to manage volume, or personal protective equipment such as plexiglass dividers;
  • Inventory (higher cost of goods, higher transportation or delivery costs, or procuring Pennsylvania-grown produce, meat, and dairy products, or loss of product);
  • Innovative food access technology such as mobile or pop-up markets, or mobile EBT reader technology;
  • Costs to expand access to Pennsylvania grown or processed produce, dairy and meat products or provide stable market access for Pennsylvania farmers that have lost or limited markets; and
  • Other one-time or increased expenses incurred related to COVID-19.

For more information on this program including eligibility, award amounts, additional prioritizations and criteria, please visit https://www.agriculture.pa.gov/Food_Security/Pages/default.aspx.

Neighborhood Assistance Program Accepting Applications

The Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development (DCED) is accepting applications for the Neighborhood Assistance Program (NAP) and the Neighborhood Assistance Program, Enterprise Zone Tax Credit (EZP) for the 2020-21 program year.

Applications for the 2020-21 program year will be accepted until August 31, 2020.

There will be a special emphasis on and priority given to projects that seek to address the critical problems that have arisen related to the pandemic and its aftermath, social justice and support for policy changing movements, and improving opportunities for marginalized populations during the pandemic for the 2020-21 program year.

The department will also prioritize any EZP projects that provide for the manufacturing of critical and necessary medical supplies such as masks, face shields, ventilators, and other similar products, or focus on job creation. EZP is an incentive program that provides tax credits to private companies investing in rehabilitating, expanding, or improving buildings or land located within designated enterprise zones.

NAP encourages private sector investment into projects that will help improve distressed communities by providing tax credits to businesses that donate capital to support projects that address neighborhood and community problems. NAP can be used for projects in categories including affordable housing, community service, crime prevention, education, job training, charitable food, blight, special population issues, veterans’ initiatives, and long-term revitalization.

NAP has served as a resource for nonprofits, businesses, and neighborhoods for more than 30 years. The goals of NAP are to promote community participation and collaboration among nonprofits, businesses, and residents while producing outcomes that assist a distressed area or the low-income population in a neighborhood.

DEP Offering Grants to Small Businesses & Farmers for Energy, Environmental Projects

FarmThe Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)  has announced the availability of $1 million in grant funding to Pennsylvania small businesses and farmers for energy efficiency, pollution prevention, and natural resource protection projects through the Small Business Advantage grant program. New to the program this year is the opportunity for farmers to install solar pumping systems for their agricultural operations.

Eligible projects include adopting or acquiring equipment or processes that reduce energy use or pollution. Examples of eligible projects are HVAC and boiler upgrades, high-efficiency LED lighting, solvent recovery and waste recycling systems, and auxiliary power units deployed as anti-idling technology for trucks.

Last year, 233 small businesses were awarded grants for their projects. Natural resource protection projects may include planting riparian buffers, installation of streambank fencing to keep livestock out of streams, and investing in agricultural storm water management projects, with the goal of reducing sediment and nutrient loads in our waterways.

Pennsylvania-based small business owners with 100 or fewer full-time equivalent employees are eligible. Projects must save the business a minimum of $500 and 25 percent annually in energy consumption, or pollution related expenses.

Businesses can apply for 50 percent matching funds of up to $7,000 to adopt or acquire energy-efficient or pollution prevention equipment or processes. Only costs incurred between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, are eligible.

Applications will be considered on a first come, first served basis, and will be accepted until fiscal year 2020-21 funds are exhausted or April 12, 2021, whichever occurs first. All applications must be submitted through the Commonwealth's Single Application for Assistance. Printed, faxed, and mailed applications are not accepted.

The complete grant application package, which includes step-by-step instructions and instructional videos for completing the online application, is available by visiting the DEP Small Business Advantage Grant.

OASIS Tutoring

OASIS TutoringThe OASIS Intergenerational Tutoring Program is seeking adults ages 50 and older who are interested in tutoring students in grades K-4 who attend Pittsburgh Public Schools, Duquesne City, McKeesport and Woodland Hills School Districts in writing and reading. This OASIS is also partnering with the Environmental Charter School District.

OASIS has tutors in more than 37 schools, serving 230 students each year. All training, materials, and clearances are free.

Training sessions will be conducted by OASIS during the weeks of August 17 and August 24. OASIS follows all state and local regulations and guidance on social distancing in setting up and conducting the training.

For more information on how to become an OASIS tutor, specific training sites, and days and/or times, please call John D. Spehar, Pittsburgh OASIS Intergenerational Tutoring Program Director at 412-393-4768 or email him at jdspehar@oasisnet.org. OASIS Tutoring is a Program of Literacy Pittsburgh.

Fontana Fact

It was on this date in 1936 that American track and field star Jesse Owens won the second of his four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics as he won the long jump competition over German Luz Long. Owens, an African-American also won gold medals in the 100 meter, 200 meter and 4x100 meter relay. Adolf Hitler hoped that the 1936 Berlin Games would prove his theory of Aryan racial superiority. Instead, Owens’ achievements led the people of Berlin to hail him as a hero.

Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana

Brookline District
1039 Brookline Boulevard
Suite 2
Pittsburgh, PA 15226
Phone: 412-344-2551
Weekdays – 9 am – 5 pm
Harrisburg
543 Main Capitol | Box 203042
Harrisburg, PA 17120
Phone: 717-787-5300
Fax: 717-772-5484
Weekdays – 8:30 am – 5 pm
Kennedy Township
Kenmawr Plaza
524 Pine Hollow Road
Kennedy Twp, PA 15136
Phone: 412-331-1208
Weekdays – 10 am – 4 pm
Beechview Satellite
1660 Broadway Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15216
By appointment