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Pennsylvania State Senators Seek to Further Restrict Unemployment Benefits

Pennsylvania State Senator Mike Reagan recently introduced legislation seeking to amend the Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Act (“the Act”) making it more difficult for unemployment Claimants to collect benefits.  Senate Bill No. 473 would amend section 402(b) of the Act which addresses eligibility when Claimants voluntarily leave work.  Under existing law, a Claimant would be eligible for benefits if he voluntarily left employment for a “necessitous and compelling” reason.  The new legislation would add the burden of requiring that Claimants prove that the reason for their separation was necessitous and compelling and “attributable to his employment.” Under this scenario, thousands of employees who are sick or injured outside of work and who are restricted from performing their job due to the physical requirements of their job will be ineligible for benefits.  This provision would have a dramatic impact on those who work in blue collar jobs that require heavy lifting or other physical requirements that could be restricted as a result of illness or injury.  Many employers will not allow employees to work in available light duty positions during the period of their recovery, despite having those lighter duty positions available.  Under the current law, those individuals who can perform some work and are not offered work within their restrictions by their employers, would be eligible for unemployment benefits if they can prove that they are “able and available to perform suitable work.” Under the pending legislation, whether an employee can prove that they were able and available to perform suitable work could become irrelevant if the employee cannot prove that their absence is “attributable to his employment.”

This legislation could also significantly impact the already overburdened Unemployment Referees who decide these cases on appeals.  If this legislation is passed, a Referee could be required to determine whether or not an injury or an illness is work related and therefore “attributable to his job.”  The legislation does not answer how a Claimant will be able to carry that burden.  Will a doctor’s expert testimony be required to establish that a condition is attributable to work?  Will an employer be allowed to have their doctor examine the Claimant? How will an unemployed Claimant pay the fees normally associated with a doctor’s report or testimony?  Pennsylvania already has a system that determines those issues – the Workers’ Compensation System.  If legislators are looking to cut costs associated with Unemployment Compensation claims, then don’t allow employers who are on the hook for workers’ compensation benefits be allowed to take an offset for workers’ compensation benefits owed, when the Claimant collects unemployment benefits.  Let the employers repay the unemployment system for the benefits owed to injured workers.

Finally, this could lead to a dramatic spike in workers’ compensation claims.  The truth of the matter is that many employees who are hurt on the job don’t file claims through the workers’ compensation system.  Instead, they go through the less complicated and less time consuming unemployment system if they are restricted from their job in order to give themselves the time to recover and return to their jobs.  If employees would be required to prove that their illness or injury is “attributable to his job” employees would have no choice but to file Pennsylvania workers’ compensation claims which could lead to dramatic cost increases for many Pennsylvania employers.

If you are an employee who is hurt on the job and considering filing for Unemployment but not workers’ compensation, you should be aware that unemployment is typically for a maximum of 26 weeks while workers’ compensation can pay wage loss benefits for much longer.  If you are hurt on the job and unsure of your rights you should speak with an experienced attorney who knows the Unemployment and Workers’ Compensation systems to determine your options.

Ira H. Weinstock, P.C. is located in Harrisburg, PA and serves clients in and around Central Pennsylvania. Contact our experienced Harrisburg attorneys today, we can travel if necessary.

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