PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: New Unemployment Comp System; Vaccine Eligibility Expands; Direct Shipment Of Wine/Liquor

The Senate held budget hearings, House Republicans had hearings and press events on abortion and transgender girls, investigations mutiplied into the PA School Employees Pension Fund, the race for the open U.S. Senate seat got bigger and there was good news on the direct shipment of wine and liquor.

Let’s get to it…..

            Budget Hearings March On

            The Senate Appropriations Committee held seven more agency budget hearings last week, but the most exciting thing to come out of them was the announcement of a new Unemployment Compensation system by the Department of Labor and Industry.  Read more key points here.

            The Committee has three hearings left– April 21- PennDOT and April 22– the Department of Health and the Governor’s Budget Secretary.

            New Unemployment Claims System!

            Just before its budget hearing in the Senate last week, the Department of Labor and Industry announced it would be transitioning to a new online Unemployment Compensation claims system starting June 8.  Read more here.

            The UC claims system was crushed under the burden of millions of claims over the last year as a result of the COVID pandemic.  Pennsylvania was far from alone in that boat.

            But the new system comes after a series of efforts to replace the system that began in 2006 failed or in one case ended up in court.  Read more here.

            This version cost about $30.2 million.  Read more here.

            Took The Money, And Cut The Jobs

            The Inquirer reported last week at least 40 companies they identified took more than $70 million in federal Paycheck Protection forgivable loans and still laid off over 4,200 employees.  Read more here.

            Many of the employers were hospitality companies and it wasn’t clear if the layoffs made them ineligible for loan forgiveness.

            Prevailing Wage Violations

            Attorney General Shapiro charged Glenn Hawbaker of State College with the theft of over $20 million from employees for violations of the prevailing wage law and other violations.  It is the largest prevailing wage criminal case on record.  Read more here.

            Hawbaker is one of the state’s largest contractors that received an estimated $1.7 billion in contracts as of 2021.  Read more here.

            Pension Fund Investigations Multiply

            The PA School Employees Pension Fund and its board members reported last week it was not only under investigation by the FBI [Read more here] but also a federal grand jury is also seeking answers on recent over reporting of pension investments results [Read more here].

            Phase 1C Workers Eligible For Vaccine April 12

            Under the PA Department of Health’s revised schedule of vaccine eligibility, energy and critical infrastructure workers in Phase 1C are eligible to make COVD vaccine appointments starting April 12.

            On April 19, all residents 16 and over will be eligible to start scheduling vaccination appointments.

            Click Here for information from the Department of Health on local vaccine providers in your area and how to make appointments.

            Gov. Wolf said Wednesday every resident wanting a vaccine shot should receive a dose by May.  Read more here.

            However, the Biden Administration Friday warned states will receive substantially fewer doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine over the coming weeks, which could throw a wrench into Gov. Wolf’s timetable.  Read more here.

            In response to an apparently growing problem of people making appointments with multiple vaccine providers to make sure they get vaccinated [Read more here], the Department of Health Friday urged people to cancel duplicate appointments to help reduce the number of potentially wasted doses.  Read more here.

            The appointment no-shows are causing vaccine providers to scramble to find people quickly to vaccinate [Read more here] and legislators are starting to ask for information on how many vaccine doses have been wasted [Read more here].

            But at vaccination centers in Lancaster [Read more here], Monroeville [Read more here], in Central Pennsylvania [Read more here] and other areas are reporting thousands of appointments available.

            Workers Coming Back?

            With the number of vaccinated people in Pennsylvania climbing above 6.2 million and over 35 percent of eligible people receiving at least one dose, companies are starting to think about workers returning to the office.  Read more here.

            The Department of Labor and Industry also encouraged businesses looking for qualified people to fill positions to use the free PA CareerLink Services.  Read more here.

            COVID Lawsuit Immunity

            The House again passed legislation– House Bill 605 (Ecker-R-Adams)– to limit the liability of a variety of entities from lawsuits resulting from their actions during the COVID pandemic.

            Included in the bill are schools and child-care facilities, manufacturers, distributors, labelers and users of personal protective equipment, businesses and local government authorities, and healthcare providers, including practitioners, facilities, emergency medical services providers, nursing care providers, clinical laboratories, and others involved in providing health care services relating to COVID-19.

            A new section provides that actions alleging personal injury or death relating to exposure to COVID-19 must first be submitted to and heard by a board of three members of the bar of the court for compulsory arbitration.

However, if the plaintiff files a certificate affirming that the personal injury or death resulted from the defendant’s failure to comply with public health directives in effect at the time of the alleged misconduct, then the action would proceed directly to the court of common pleas without first undergoing arbitration.

These arbitrations must receive a hearing on an expedited basis.

            Gov. Wolf vetoed legislation last year– House Bill 1737— limiting liability related to COVID and in other unrelated circumstances saying it was too broad.

            Still No Vaccine Passports

            House and Senate Republicans are still pushing legislation against vaccine passports and Gov. Wolf said again this week the state isn’t looking at adopting a vaccine passport requirement. Read more here

The Biden Administration added its “No” to implementing a vaccine passport proposal last week as well.  Read more here

            So, I guess that’s a no?  Again?

            New Education Guidelines

            The Department of Health and Education issued an update to its model recommendations for reopening Pre-K to 12 schools and closing and opening schools in response to a COVID outbreak.  Read more here.

The changes are in response to updated guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

School districts are also beginning to announce plans to help students catch-up on academic work they may have missed during the school year due to COVID.

Philadelphia schools announced a plan for universal summer school [Read more here], Allentown School administrators were literally hitting the pavement to promote hybrid learning [Read more here] and Pittsburgh schools were preparing to reopen in-person for the first time this year [Read more here].

Philadelphia is also rearranging its schedule for giving students required standardized tests.  Read more here.

On the other hand, students in one Westmoreland County high school reported becoming more comfortable with remote learning, but still a sizable 10 percent reported not being comfortable. Read more here.

Pittsburgh and other schools are having problems reopening, not because of these guidelines, but things like bus driver shortages.  Read more here.

Read this week’s COVID NewsClips for more on school and college COVID news.

            Slight Increase In COVID Percent Positivity

As of April 9, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard is showing the statewide percent positivity increased slightly to 9.5 percent from 9.4 percent last week, still a significant increase from a month ago. 

On March 5, the percent positivity was 5.7 percent– anything over 5 percent is bad. 

The daily number of COVID cases statewide, the number of hospitalizations and ICU cases continued to increase over the last week.

The University of Pittsburgh issued another warning saying the surge in cases is “endangering our campus and surrounding communities’ as COVID cases there continued to increase.  Read more here.

The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 25,188 on April 3 to 25,402 on April 10.  The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 1,038,749 on April 3 to 1,068,974 on April 10.

As of April 9, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 3,847,164 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine– up from 3,565,943 last week– and 2,208,680 have been given the required two doses– up from 1,960,809 last week.

            Visit the Weekly COVID NewsClips webpage for this week’s ups and downs.

            Child Sexual Assault

            The House passed a second bill last week– House Bill 951 (Rozzi-D-Berks)– opening a two-year window in law for lawsuits by victims of child sexual abuse.

            Not everyone agrees opening a window in law versus amending the constitution to do the same thing will withstand legal challenge, but it was passed anyway and goes to an uncertain future in the Senate.

            This follows passage of House Bill 14 (Gregory-R-Blair) by the House and Senate that would restart the process of amending the state constitution to provide a two-year window for lawsuits.  

            The bill was given final approval by the House and Senate on March 23-24, but has yet to be signed in the Senate so it can then go to the Department of State for advertising.

            Transgender Girls

            In a major press conference last week, House Republicans announced the introduction of legislation to ban transgender girls and women from playing women’s school sports in Pennsylvania, following the pattern of Republicans in other states.  Read more here.

            The Republicans could cite no instances where this has happened in Pennsylvania and opponents point to a 2017 review of literature showing there is no evidence transgender women outperform gendered women in sports.  Read more here.

            In any event, Gov. Wolf said he would veto the bill if it reached his desk.

            Abortion Hearing

            House Republicans held the first of several hearings on the issue of abortion, this one on state oversight of abortion providers.  Read more here.

            There were 31,018 legal abortions performed in Pennsylvania in 2019, up from 2018, but down from the 35,227 in 2010.  There are now 17 facilities in the state licensed to perform abortions in 12 counties, according to the Department of Health.

            Democrats linked the drop to increased access to contraceptives. Republicans said it was due to efforts by groups to intervene and encourage women to keep their pregnancies.

            Republicans also discussed the issue of underaged girls seeking abortions saying more oversight may be needed. 

In Pennsylvania underaged girls need a parent or guardian’s permission to get an abortion and the Department of Health reported there has been only one case in its records where an abortion provider had been cited for not following that requirement.

U.S. Senate Race

In some unusual news in the open race for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat in 2022– Cong. Brendan Boyle (D) announced he would NOT be running.  Read more here.

Three new candidates said they would be jumping in– Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, Democratic Chair of the Montgomery County Commissioners [Read more here]; Kevin Baumlin, a hospital emergency medicine chief, announced he would also be running for the Democratic nomination [Read more here] and conservative Republican commentator Kathy Barnette said she was joining the race [Read more here].

Former Republican Congressional candidate Sean Parnell said he was 99.9 percent sure he would run for the seat.  Read more here

Democratic Sen. Sharif Street committed himself further to the race by forming an exploratory committee.  Read more here.

Republican candidate Jeff Bartos reported raising $1.2 million in campaign contributions for his campaign during the first quarter.  Read more here.

Direct Liquor/Wine Sales

The PA Supreme Court ruled individuals and businesses ordering wine and liquor not carried in state liquor stores do not have to have those orders go to a Liquor Control Board location for pickup and payment. Read more here.

They can ship them directly to their home or business. The Court affirmed the ruling of Commonwealth Court on the issue.

            COVID Restrictions Not An Excuse

            Lehigh County Judge Reichley last week told Devon Scholl he was “offended” by Scholl’s excuse that being unable to socialize due to COVID restrictions led him to beat his father to death.  Read more here.

            What’s Next?

            The House and Senate are not in voting session this week, but will return the week of April 19.

In the House, the House State Government Committee has another in its series of hearings on the 2020 elections.  This one will hear from “stakeholders” and members concerning the election process.

            The House Labor and Industry Committee will hold another hearing on the status of the Unemployment Compensation program.

            The House Democratic Policy Committee has three hearings planned– one on the status of COVID vaccines, a second a roundtable on disability and mental health and a third on investing in passenger rail.

Click Here for House Committee schedule.

            The Senate Education Committee has a hearing on needed K-12 education reforms in Central Pennsylvania.

            The Senate Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee will hold a hearing on the reliability of Pennsylvania’s technology infrastructure.

            The Senate Republican Policy Committee has another hearing on the economic impact of COVID on tourism and hospitality companies.

             Click Here for Senate Committee schedule.


Click Here For A Week’s Worth Of Political NewsClips

Click Here For PA Coronavirus NewsClips

Click Here For A Week’s Worth Of Environment & Energy NewsClips

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