Statewide Mail-In Ballots
As this frightening pandemic affects every facet of our lives, more and more citizens are doing what they can to keep safe by staying at home, practicing social distancing and keeping in touch with others as remotely as possible. We cannot be sure when this nightmare will end, or when we can return to living our normal lives. Some project it will be weeks. Others have argued that it may take months or longer. Many medical experts have even warned that a second wave of Covid-19 may target us when the weather cools this autumn.
While casting a vote in the upcoming primary or general elections may not be at the top of anyone’s priority list right now, it’s still an important civic duty in which we all should engage. With all of this uncertainty regarding the pandemic, I have decided to write legislation that would make Pennsylvania a mail-in ballot only state. Specifically, county board of elections would send out paper ballots 2-3 weeks before an election to qualified registered voters in a prepaid postage envelop.
To help ensure fraud doesn’t happen, there will be a warning on the envelope stating: ANY PERSON WHO, BY USE OR FORCE OR OTHER MEANS, UNDULY INFLUENCES AN ELECTOR TO VOTE IN ANY PARTICULAR MANNER OR TO REFRAIN FROM VOTING IS SUBJECT TO CRIMINAL PENALTIES UPON CONVICTION, INCLUDING IMPRISONMENT OR A FINE, OR BOTH. A board will only count a ballot if this declaration is signed and the signature matches up to the signature on file from the voter’s registration. There will also be protocols in place for those who misplace, damage, lose, or do not receive a mail-in ballot to ensure that they receive a replacement ballot in a timely manner but also are only able to vote once in that election.
Ballots may start to be counted seven days before an election under my legislation. An authorized representative of each candidate in the election and one representative from each political party will be allowed in the room while the counting takes place. However, no person shall disclose the results prior to the close of the polls on Election Day.
There are many benefits to mail-in ballot voting which include more time to go over the candidates and questions being voted on, greater voter turnout, obviously safer in terms of health during these trying times, decrease in costs to hold elections for municipalities, significant reduction in the amount of workers needed on election day, and easier for older residents and those who have a disability to cast their vote to name a few.
If signed into law, Pennsylvania would become the sixth state to have all mail-in ballot elections. Oregon, which my bill is mirrored after, has been doing mail-in ballots since 1998. Furthermore, because of the COVID-19 situation, six additional state’s primaries will be using mail-in ballots.
It’s important to point out that there will be safeguards put into place, similar to what those other states have, to keep the likelihood of fraud low, even though multiple studies have shown that all forms of voting fraud are extremely rare in the United States. This is also backed up with the disbandment of President Trump’s panel shortly after it was created in 2017 to investigate election corruption when it found very few credible allegations of fraudulent voting.
Even though residents can apply for a mail-in ballot with no excuse needed, I feel that with the current pandemic that is taking place, switching our state over to a uniform statewide mail-in ballot election system would take one major headache off our local municipalities’ plates. Until then, I want to remind qualified voters that our primary election has been moved to June 2 and encourage you to apply for a mail-in ballot no later than May 26 by clicking here or visiting www.votespa.com. If you do not have computer access, you can call the Allegheny County Elections Division at 412-350-4500 to request a mail-in ballot, or write a letter requesting a mail-in ballot from the Elections Division at 542 Forbes Avenue, Suite 609, Pittsburgh, PA 15219-2913.
Did You Know…
Did you know that Oregon, Colorado, Hawaii, Washington, and Utah conduct elections primarily through mail-in ballots?
Unemployment Benefits Update
On Friday, Governor Wolf announced that the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry is implementing new federal unemployment compensation benefits provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The COVID-19 relief package temporarily provides an additional $600 per week, makes self-employed, independent contractors and gig workers eligible for benefits and extends unemployment compensation (UC) benefits for an additional 13 weeks. The federal benefits are in addition to Pennsylvania’s regular unemployment benefit, which is about half of a person’s full-time weekly income up to $572 per week for 26 weeks.
As part of the CARES Act, unemployment benefits are being expanded to provide an additional $600 per week beginning the week ending April 4, 2020, through the week ending July 25, 2020. This temporary emergency increase in benefits is referred to as the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program.
On Friday, Labor & Industry issued the first $600 payments. All eligible claimants that filed biweekly claims for the week ending April 4 and who received their regular UC payment should expect to see the additional money either today or Wednesday. For other eligible claimants who have not yet received a regular UC payment, they will receive the extra $600 the week after receiving their first UC payment.
It is very important to note that anyone who currently has federal withholding tax taken out of their benefits will see the same 10% reduction in the FPUC payment, resulting in a $540 payment. For information about changing your withholding election, visit L&I’s Taxes on Benefits page.
The $600 is paid separately from the biweekly UC benefit, and residents do not need to apply.
Visit the department’s FPUC frequently asked questions for more information.
The CARES Act also temporarily makes unemployment compensation available to self-employed, independent contractors, gig economy workers, and others not normally eligible for the benefit. The program is referred to as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). These workers cannot apply through the department’s UC online system at this time. The U.S. Department of Labor requires that PUA be tracked separately from regular UC. For this reason, Pennsylvania must build a new online platform to process PUA benefits.
Eligible individuals should be able to start applying for PUA benefits within the next two weeks. Eligible claimants will receive backdated payments to January 27, 2020, or the first week they were unable to work due to COVID-19, whichever of the two dates is later. The PUA benefit will end December 31, 2020. The department will announce when the PUA benefit application is available. Please visit L&I’s PUA frequently asked questions for more information.
The CARES Act provides an additional 13 weeks of unemployment compensation, including for workers who exhaust their regular unemployment benefits. Claimants will be eligible for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) from the week beginning March 29, 2020, through the end of the year. The department is awaiting additional federal guidance about the program and will provide an update when information is available.
Additional Information for workers impacted by COVID-19:
Schools Closed for Remainder of 2019-20 School Year
Continuing his efforts to protect the health and safety of students and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Wolf announced last week that all schools will remain closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year. The governor made the decision in consultation with Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine and Secretary of Education Pedro A. Rivera. Students and families can continue to pick up meals at designated sites.
Although schools are closed, teaching and learning may continue: schools are strongly encouraged to provide continuity of education for all students in the most appropriate and accessible ways possible. PDE has secured resources intended to help all schools that want to use them – including those not currently offering online platforms, those requiring additional technology support, and those that may rely on traditional methods, such as paper lessons, to continue educating students. There is no cost to schools or students for these resources, which are available by clicking here.
The closure applies to all public K-12 schools, brick and mortar and cyber charter schools, private and parochial schools, career and technical centers and intermediate units. All Department of Education early learning program classrooms, including those for Pre-K Counts, Head Start Supplemental Assistance Program (HSSAP) and Preschool Early Intervention, will also remain closed.
Colleges and universities may not resume in-person instruction or reopen their physical locations until the governor permits them to open or lifts the closure of non-life-sustaining businesses.
Schools will remain closed though the end of the 2019-2020 academic year as it is defined by the local school calendar. Under the state’s directive, schools could begin summer programming on the day after their academic year ends. Secretary Rivera added that all re-openings will be contingent on public health guidance provided by the Secretary of Health and stay-at-home orders issued by the governor.
In addition to the school closure announcement, through his order Secretary Rivera also took action that will ensure crucial stability of education programs. Under Act 13 of 2020, the secretary has exercised his executive authority to adjust requirements for the evaluation of professional employees and waive student teaching requirements that may not be possible in the context of school closures.
The department has been providing ongoing guidance to school communities in the form of FAQs. The guidance information is available by clicking here.
Staying Connected & Informed
I want to remind constituents that while my offices are closed to the public, we continue to provide constituent service over the phone and through email. I encourage constituents that need personal assistance with a state-related matter to either call my Brookline office (412-344-2551) during business hours or email email@example.com. All mail should be sent to the Brookline office, at 1039 Brookline Boulevard, Suite 2, Pittsburgh, PA 15226.
This is a very fluid situation and it is very easy to be overwhelmed with the amount of information that is out there. All levels of government are releasing information related to the coronavirus pandemic, sometimes multiple times daily. Below are hyperlinks where residents can get accurate information online in a timely manner:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – The federal CDC site provides information on the virus, its symptoms, how to protect yourself and your family, information for healthcare professionals, and the ability to sign-up to receive email alerts. The CDC also has a page dedicated towards managing anxiety and stress caused by the outbreak of this virus. That page is able to be viewed by clicking here.
Pennsylvania Department of Health – The PA Department of Health website provides information on the virus, a map of cases currently in Pennsylvania and links where citizens can watch daily briefings. The Department of Health also has a hotline where questions about the virus can be asked, 1-877-PA-HEALTH.
Allegheny County – In addition to information on the virus, Allegheny County has partnered with United Way 211 to offer a 24/7 hotline, 1-888-856-2774. The site also contains links where residents in need can get assistance with housing and food. The County’s online Food Map can be viewed by clicking here. This map shows locations of free food distribution throughout Allegheny County.
City of Pittsburgh – The city’s site provides updates on the virus and can connect residents to online resources that include assistance with rent, mortgage and utilities, meals, and more.
I want to remind everyone that The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) is prohibiting electric, natural gas, water, wastewater, telecommunication and steam utility terminations for as long as the Proclamation of Disaster, issued by the governor, is in effect.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General's office wants consumers and businesses to be aware of price gouging protections under Governor Wolf’s COVID-19 disaster declaration for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In addition, the Office of Attorney General has created a specialized resource (firstname.lastname@example.org for consumers to email and report malfeasance.
Wearing & Taking Care of Masks
The governor and Secretary of Health, as well as the CDC, continue to recommend that anyone who must leave their house, wear a mask. They also urge everyone to reserve N-95 and paper masks for healthcare workers. They are recommending the use of a cloth or homemade mask and directions for making your own are available at www.health.pa.gov or by clicking here. The CDC also offers information on how to wear, and how to make, homemade cloth masks as well as how to clean them. That information is available by clicking here. Additionally, the PA Department of Health says the best way to clean your masks is by using hot water and regular detergent, and then drying them on the hottest setting on your dryer.
Department of Labor & Industry Hiring
Due to the large number of unemployment claims, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry is hiring additional unemployment claims Intermittent Intake Interviewers at seven locations around Pennsylvania, including Allegheny County. Anyone interested in applying, please click here to apply online.
Reminder – Income Tax Deadlines Extended
The IRS, Pennsylvania Department of Revenue and City of Pittsburgh have all extended their respective personal income tax deadlines until July 15, 2020.
Although the state filing deadline has been extended, the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue is encouraging taxpayers who are able to file their returns electronically to do so. This will enable the department to continue to process returns as commonwealth offices are closed. Additionally, if you are expecting a refund from the commonwealth, filing electronically will help avoid a delay in the release of your refund.
The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue and Department of Banking & Securities wants all Pennsylvanians to protect themselves from phishing scams that are targeting individuals who are expecting a stimulus payment from the federal government following the outbreak of COVID-19.
The stimulus payments, otherwise known as economic impact payments, are being distributed by the federal government as part of the federal CARES Act. According to the IRS, in most cases the payments will be directly deposited into the bank accounts that taxpayers previously listed on their federal tax returns.
However, the IRS has reported seeing a surge of scam artists perpetrating phishing schemes where they pose as government officials to trick people into turning over their banking information. Doing so may allow a criminal to steal your identity, file a fraudulent tax return in your name or use your personal data for other illicit purposes.
According to the IRS, some of the electronic messages associated with these phishing scams say, “In order to receive your stimulus check via direct deposit, you will need to confirm your banking information.” These messages are targeting not only individual citizens, but also tax professionals.
Pennsylvanians are encouraged to remember several warning signs from the IRS, which says scammers may:
- Emphasize the words “Stimulus Check” or Stimulus Payment.” The official term is “Economic Impact Payment.”
- Ask the taxpayer to sign over their economic impact check to them.
- Ask by phone, email, text, or social media for verification of personal and/or banking information saying that the information is needed to receive or speed up their economic impact payment.
- Suggest they can get a tax refund or economic impact payment faster by working on the taxpayer’s behalf. This scam could be conducted by social media or even in person.
- Mail the taxpayer a bogus check, perhaps in an odd amount, then tell the taxpayer to call a number or verify information online in order to cash it.
Below are some tips to avoid scams:
- Look for imposters: Many times, criminals will pose as a government entity or an official business. If you are targeted by a scam artist through the mail, phone or email, do not provide personal information or money until you are sure you are speaking to a legitimate representative.
- Approach unusual attachments and links with caution: Links to a website or attachments to an email could be infected with malware that download malicious software. Spyware can track the recipient’s keystrokes to obtain passwords, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers or other sensitive information.
- Conduct research online: Using information included in a potentially fraudulent notice or communication, such as email address domain name, company name, address or telephone number, conduct a search online to see if a scam has been reported by other people or government agencies.
The U.S. Treasury Department and the IRS announced the economic impact payments will be distributed automatically, with no action required for most people. You can read the press release from the IRS on the distribution of economic impact payments by clicking here. The IRS has also said it would post additional information on www.IRS.gov/coronavirus as it becomes available.
The Department of Revenue reminds taxpayers that it has a Fraud Detection and Analysis Unit dedicated to assisting victims of identity theft and combating tax refund fraud. If you are a victim of identity theft or discover a fraudulent Pennsylvania personal income tax return was filed using your identity, please contact the Fraud Detection and Analysis Unit by emailing RA-RVPITFRAUD@pa.gov.
For more information on ways to protect yourself, please visit the Department of Revenue’s Identity Theft Victim Assistance webpage by clicking here. You can also find further information about protecting yourself online at www.PA.gov/Cybersecurity.
COVID-19 Information for People with Diabetes
The American Diabetes Association is providing support and guidance to individuals impacted by diabetes, who are at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. Helpful resources, information that allows individuals to know the risks, legal rights and more are available at www.diabetes.org/coronavirus or by calling 1-800-DIABETES (800-342-2383).
If you or a loved one are diabetic, make sure you know how to reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19 and what to do if you or a loved one develops symptoms. Additionally, the American Diabetes Association has resources to help patients pay for insulin if they’re experiencing unexpected financial hardships. Please visit https://insulinhelp.org/ to learn more.
Trout Season Opens Early
Last Tuesday, April 7, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC), in consultation with the Office of the Governor, Pennsylvania Department of Health, and Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) opened the statewide 2020 trout season.
This measure allows properly licensed anglers and youth to begin fishing for and harvesting trout. All regulations, sizes, and creel limits apply.
Anglers and boaters must abide by social distancing guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Governor Wolf’s stay-at-home order regarding COVID-19.
Anglers and boaters should limit travel by fishing close to home, cover their faces with a mask or other cloth covering, keep a distance of at least six feet from others (the length of arm with an outstretched fishing rod is a good guide), only go fishing with members of their families living in the same household, and never share fishing gear with others. If another angler is in an area you intended to fish, move on to another spot.
Non-resident Pennsylvania fishing license holders should comply with the CDC Travel Advisory urging residents in several states, including New York and New Jersey, to refrain from non-essential domestic travel.
The decision to open trout season immediately is intended to discourage concentrated gatherings of people that may have occurred on the traditional opening day, to minimize intrastate and interstate travel, and to reduce the threat of illegal poaching in waters that have already been stocked.
PFBC staff will continue to stock trout throughout the spring, but not all waters have been stocked at this time. To further discourage group gatherings, a stocking schedule and list of waters that have been stocked will not be provided to the public this season. Anglers should also be aware that public access to some waters may be restricted by the landowner or local municipal government.
Fishing and boating is permitted in Pennsylvania state parks and state forests, when social distancing guidelines are followed. DCNR is encouraging people to fish and conduct other outdoor recreation within 15 minutes of their homes. Anglers should note that state park facilities, including restrooms may be closed.
Regardless of fishing location, anglers should bring a bag with them and carry out their trash.
As a result of this action, a Mentored Youth Trout Day will not take place this season. The PFBC will honor all Voluntary Youth Fishing Licenses purchased in 2020 for all mentored youth fishing opportunities during the 2021 season.
To participate in trout fishing, anglers must have a Pennsylvania fishing license and Trout/Salmon Permit, both of which may be purchased online using the FishBoatPA mobile app for smartphones, or at www.fishandboat.com.
Those who do not have the ability to purchase online and are unable to visit a retail location may call (814) 359-5222 for purchasing assistance. Anglers may produce a digital copy of their license on their mobile device as proof of purchase. A signed, printed copy is not currently required to prove you own a valid license. If approached by a Waterways Conservation Officer in the field, an angler or boater may provide a digital image or receipt of their fishing license, and a digital receipt from their launch permit or boat registration. Anglers may still display their fishing license.
Practice Social Distancing While Fishing
A video message containing social distancing recommendations while fishing can be viewed here.
In accordance with direction provided by the Governor, Pennsylvania Department of Health, and the CDC, the PFBC recommends that anglers practice social distancing while fishing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
- Stay home if you do not feel well.
- Cover your face with a mask or cloth covering.
- Practice social distancing by keeping at least 6 feet (the length of an outstretched standard fishing rod) between you and the nearest angler.
- Avoid crowds. If you arrive at a fishing spot that is already occupied, find another location.
- Keep children from wandering into the personal space of others.
- Do not share fishing gear.
- Do not carpool.
- Buy your fishing license online.
- Continue to follow CDC guidelines which include washing your hands or using hand sanitizer frequently, and not touching your face.
- If you are fishing at a state or local park, the restrooms may be closed. Use the bathroom before you visit or dispose of waste properly. Carry out your trash.
A video message containing social distancing recommendations while fishing can be viewed by clicking here.
During these difficult days, while we practice social distancing in an effort to slow and ultimately stop the spread of COVID-19, there are many individuals in our neighborhoods across the country who continue to work on the front lines, providing life essential services. Health care professionals, first responders, police, firefighters, grocery and pharmacy workers among others continue to work in a dangerous environment. I want to thank these workers for all they are doing and encourage everyone to express your gratitude from a safe distance, when encountering these individuals.
As we have seen over the last several weeks, even those who are not on the front lines, are making contributions for the betterment of us all. We have heard and seen stories of people sewing needed masks, making monetary donations, donating blood, checking on elderly residents, delivering food and more. Businesses and other organizations are stepping up to donate supplies and money to help those in need.
It is important during this time we hear of the positive contributions so many of our citizens continue to make. I would like to highlight these efforts in this space. I encourage everyone out there to share stories of these selfless and heroic acts that are taking place in our neighborhoods. Please email me at email@example.com so I can share these stories with everyone.
Getting Food to Those in Need
This week, I’d like to highlight the great work the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank is doing to provide food to those in need. Due to logistics and the observation of Federal, State and Local COVID-19 mitigation regulations that limit crowd sizes and recommend social distancing, it is not possible to safely distribute food at the Food Bank’s regularly scheduled large-scale Produce to People, FoodShare and Oakland Free Food Spot distribution locations. They have had to make the difficult decision to cancel all currently scheduled distributions until further notice.
Despite these challenges, the Food Bank has come up with a safe and efficient emergency drive-up food distribution model that they are now using. Last week, they teamed up with the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council, Pittsburgh Penguins and Pittsburgh Police to host an emergency drive-up food distribution event where they were able to serve 1,300 families. They also worked recently with the Pittsburgh Pirates on a similar event.
I commend the Food Bank for their extraordinary efforts during this difficult time and for these organizations in our communities who are stepping up to help. If you’re in a position to help and are interested in assisting the Food Bank with donations or if you are in need of assistance, please visit www.pittsburghfoodbank.org.
Sharpsburg’s Selflessness Growing Mask Supply
I also want to share an article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that ran on April 9 telling the story of how Sharpsburg businesses are going above and beyond to help others during this time. Read about how the Original Mattress Factory went from producing mattresses to masks, how Lane Tierney of Mossy Lane Products is staying busy while closed to produce masks and how the owner of Advanced Sewing Technologies, Art Kleitz’s generosity is helping a sixth grader make masks. Read more about these selfless acts reported by the Post-Gazette by clicking here.
It was on this day in 1910 that President William Howard Taft became the first sitting president to throw out a ceremonial first pitch on the opening day of Major League Baseball. President Taft threw the pitch from the stands prior to the game between the Washington Senators and Philadelphia Athletics. In the 110 years since, 17 sitting presidents have thrown out the first pitch on opening day.
Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana
| Brookline District
1039 Brookline Boulevard
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
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1660 Broadway Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15216