A man holds a sign that says "I lost my job because of coronavirus." Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic and related business closures. The American Rescue Plan extends unemployment benefits to help them  through September. (Shutterstock Photo/Nata Bene) Unemployed Man
A man holds a sign that says "I lost my job because of coronavirus." Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic and related business closures. The American Rescue Plan extends unemployment benefits to help them through September. (Shutterstock Photo/Nata Bene)

Approximately 10% of Pennsylvania’s workforce will benefit from the unemployment program extension included in the American Rescue Plan.

Chris O’Shell and his family could really use an extra $300 a week in unemployment benefits.

It’s been rough, said the 33-year old Leechburg, Armstrong County, resident. Unemployed since the end of November, when he was exposed to COVID-19 right before he was supposed to start a new job, O’Shell hasn’t seen a cent in compensation from the state and has no idea why.

The added income could mean his family wouldn’t need other public assistance.

The American Rescue Plan, the COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress and signed into law Thursday by President Joe Biden, will give O’Shell and hundreds of thousands of other Pennsylvanians the help they need. 

The package is designed to help the nation recover from the economic and health effects of the coronavirus pandemic. It includes direct stimulus payments, money for schools, tax credit expansions, and subsidized COVID-19 testing and vaccination programs. It also provides an extension of the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program.

“This legislation is much-needed and far-reaching,” said Marc Stier, director of the PA Budget and Policy Center. “It would restore our economy to health and take a necessary and long-delayed step forward in overcoming the inequalities that the pandemic has shown us.”

O’Shell agreed.

“The entire unemployment system is a mess and has been for a long time,” he said. “The pandemic just made it that much worse.”

What Unemployment Benefits are in the COVID Relief Package?

Under the FPUC, people who are unemployed will get a $300 boost to their regular weekly benefits through Sept. 6.

It also extends the CARES Act programs Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (for gig workers and those not traditionally eligible for aid) and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (for the long-term unemployed) until early September. The maximum duration of PUA benefits increases to 79 weeks, and for PEUC up to 53 weeks.

The first $10,200 unemployment payments would be tax-free for households with an annual income of less than $150,000.

What Difference Will the COVID Relief Package Make in PA?

Roughly 643,000 Pennsylvanians, or 10.2% of the state’s workforce, will benefit from the expanded programs, Stier said.

The unemployment insurance programs have been extremely helpful to Pennsylvania’s economy.

“During the original unemployment program extension from the CARES Act, we could see the state’s economy start to recover and small business revenue increase,” Stier said. “When that extra money ended at the end of July, the economy started to go down again.”

The long-term plan, Stier said, is to fix the system so benefits can be easily accessed by all.

For O’Shell, a fix can’t come soon enough. He’s been waiting for months for a determination or explanation as to why he isn’t receiving his benefits. The only thing he’s been told is to be patient and continue to file a biweekly claim. 

“They are understaffed and can’t keep up with the claims coming in,” O’Shell said. “To be honest, at this point, I’m not even getting my hopes up for the extended benefits or additional $300.”