HARRISBURG -- People collecting unemployment will receive a $300 increase beginning this week, thanks to a provision included in the COVID relief package approved by Congress in December.

The boost comes as state officials say that the financial strain of the pandemic and the economic crisis caused by it have forced increasing numbers of people not just onto the unemployment rolls,  but to seek help from other safety-net programs.

The number of people seeking food stamps increased more than 5% since the start of the pandemic and topped 1.83 million in November, the most recent data available.

“This boost in unemployment benefits is vital to hardworking Pennsylvania families who have lost their income as a result of the global pandemic,” said Labor and Industry Acting Secretary Jennifer Berrier.

The number of people filing initial jobless claims peaked in late March when 374,056 claims were filed in one week.In the week ending Jan. 2, 38,512 initial jobless claims were filed, according to the Department of Labor and Industry.

The $300 is automatically added to each claimants’ payment. There is no need to apply. 

Approximately 127,000 claimants in the Unemployment Compensation and Extended Benefits programs will receive the $300 Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation boost as soon as Tuesday. The program runs the claim weeks ending Jan. 2 to March 13.

Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said that the number of people receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, traditionally called the food stamp program, increased 5% from March to November. The number of people receiving food stamps in Pennsylvania actually peaked in the summer, she said.

Miller said that the number of people receiving food stamps likely began to decline because unemployment benefits had been included as income when calculating whether a person qualified for food stamps.

Federal legislation has now changed on that, so unemployment benefits wouldn’t prevent a person from qualifying for food stamps, she said.

Barring people from getting food stamps because they were collecting unemployment, “not only hurt our lowest-income neighbors but our communities, as charitable food networks were overburdened. This is incredibly helpful for our lowest-income families and others who are going through difficult times,” Miller said. “If you were previously ineligible for SNAP because of pandemic unemployment assistance, I strongly urge you to apply again and let this program help with one essential need,” Miller said.

The financial strain has forced record numbers of people to turn to food banks, said Amy Hill, a spokeswoman for the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.

“Demand for food assistance spiked last March when the pandemic hit and remains at record high levels. In 2020 we distributed greater than 40% more pounds of food than the year prior and went from serving 135,000 individuals per month to more than 200,000 per month,” Hill said.

About 40% of the people now turning to the food banks are people who’ve never had to seek help from these anti-hunger efforts before, she said.

“We’ve watched demand ebb and flow a little bit; but even as some Pennsylvanians are returning to work, their hours are scaled back or not as many shifts are available,” Hill said. “The paychecks of these hard-working families are often not enough to pay bills, provide childcare, and buy groceries. We anticipate that the need will remain high for many months, if not years,” she said.

Delay in some unemployment benefits

The state is still waiting to revive unemployment programs created to help self-employed workers and gig workers who don’t normally qualify for unemployment benefits.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program expired when President Donald Trump delayed signing legislation that would have kept it in place. Those filing for benefits through the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program -- which provides an extra 13 weeks of benefits for people who’d exhausted their normal unemployment benefits -- have been held up for the same reason. Trump eventually signed the legislation but Berrier said state officials are now waiting for updated guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor before allowing people to resume collecting those benefits.

Claimants of the PUA and PEUC are unable to file claims for weeks after Dec. 26. These claimants should not open a new claim. The ability to file for these weeks will be added when Labor & Industry is able to start accepting them.

The federal Department of Labor  has not provided a timeline on when the final and complete guidance will arrive, Berrier said.

Food stamp enrollment by county, PA (November compared to March, 2020)

County SNAP (November) SNAP (March) Percent change
STATE TOTAL 1,834,008 1,754,453 5%
Adams 7,430 7,194 3%
Allegheny 158,637 148,227 7%
Armstrong 9,642 9,686 0%
Beaver 22,775 21,926 4%
Bedford 6,442 6,260 3%
Berks 60,781 56,994 7%
Blair 20,548 20,196 2%
Bradford 8,078 7,704 5%
Bucks 39,556 38,089 4%
Butler 14,327 14,726 -3%
Cambria 23,836 23,081 3%
Cameron 876 855 2%
Carbon 8,567 8,602 0%
Centre 7,594 7,002 8%
Chester 28,283 23,681 19%
Clarion 4,628 4,732 -2%
Clearfield 11,893 11,660 2%
Clinton 5,062 4,959 2%
Columbia 7,804 7,618 2%
Crawford 12,100 12,323 -2%
Cumberland 21,004 18,432 14%
Dauphin 50,365 47,193 7%
Delaware 75,503 69,040 9%
Elk 3,540 3,340 6%
Erie 52,281 51,790 1%
Fayette 29,425 28,959 2%
Forest 625 656 -5%
Franklin 17,583 16,685 5%
Fulton 1,858 1,836 1%
Greene 6,542 6,422 2%
Huntingdon 5,285 5,289 0%
Indiana 10,599 10,190 4%
Jefferson 5,851 5,785 1%
Juniata 2,247 2,187 3%
Lackawanna 38,351 38,040 1%
Lancaster 52,097 48,169 8%
Lawrence 15,923 15,463 3%
Lebanon 17,443 16,239 7%
Lehigh 58,498 54,274 8%
Luzerne 60,741 59,468 2%
Lycoming 16,220 16,182 0%
McKean 6,897 6,990 -1%
Mercer 18,283 17,752 3%
Mifflin 6,883 6,915 0%
Monroe 23,008 21,889 5%
Montgomery 54,570 49,833 10%
Montour 1,697 1,595 6%
Northampton 33,493 32,596 3%
Northumberland 15,042 14,470 4%
Perry 4,496 4,357 3%
Philadelphia 467,363 451,204 4%
Pike 6,724 6,416 5%
Potter 2,369 2,377 0%
Schuylkill 21,370 21,618 -1%
Snyder 3,322 3,340 -1%
Somerset 9,957 9,896 1%
Sullivan 540 546 -1%
Susquehanna 4,712 4,678 1%
Tioga 5,844 5,556 5%
Union 3,015 3,041 -1%
Venango 8,277 8,390 -1%
Warren 5,445 5,287 3%
Washington 25,845 24,037 8%
Wayne 5,990 6,054 -1%
Westmoreland 41,553 40,732 2%
Wyoming 3,504 3,532 -1%
York 52,969 50,198 6%
(Source: Department of Human Services)

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