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Pa. overcharged unemployed millions in interest

Plus, Wolf admin moves to block Trump-backed election audit.


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
July 12, 2021
With interest, guv goals, audit warning, radio waves, narrow band, lotto ID, and Pennsylvania's prehistoric sharks. It's Monday, thanks for stopping by. 
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One day after Spotlight PA contacted the Department of Labor and Industry with a list of questions about a serious error that saw unemployed Pennsylvanians overcharged millions of dollars in interest for a decade, the agency announced Friday it will issue refunds.

The department said 250,000 people "were affected by the interest overcharge" and estimated that it owes at least $14 million in refunds, which it said amounts to less than $50 for most people.

Former Department of Labor and Industry employees tasked with assessing the mistake disagree, telling Spotlight PA the agency owes much more, with numerous refunds worth more than $500, not $50, and often several thousands of dollars. The highest refund, one said, exceeded $11,000.

Ex-employees also said the state knew about the issue since 2016 and told employees to keep it under wraps — a claim the agency denies.

THE CONTEXT: Each year, interest accrues on money people owe to the department because, for various reasons, the state overpaid their unemployment benefits.

A Spotlight PA investigation found the Department of Labor and Industry, from 2006 to 2016, did not use interest rates set annually by the state Revenue Department, which ranged between 3% and 8%.

Instead, the agency charged a fixed 9% interest rate because it failed to adjust the number annually in the computer system that processes payments. The department said this was an oversight after a 2005 legal change.

The revelation comes at a fraught time for Pennsylvania's unemployment system, one beset by surging pandemic demand (and fraud), the troubled rollout of a new computer system, and now the return of work-search requirements for recipients. 

Spotlight PA reports the reimposition of pandemic-paused work search rules on July 18 has unemployed Pennsylvanians and their advocates fearing the overburdened system is not yet equipped to handle another change.

"I’m afraid that [unemployed] people are just not well-equipped at this particular time," said Deborah Steeves, an attorney at Legal Aid of Southeastern PA.
Huge issues are being debated in Harrisburg, from voting changes to redistricting, that could have ramifications on our state for years to come. Now more than ever, we need unflinching investigative journalism in Pennsylvania.

And Spotlight PA is answering the call in a bold new way.

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"It wasn't until we got to the parking lot of the grave sites that we all started crying. We all felt the energy there."

—Malorie Arrow on a 2015 visit to Pennsylvania's Carlisle Indian Industrial School site and a cemetery for Native American children taken there
VACCINE UPDATE: Pfizer is pushing for a booster in response to the emergence of new coronavirus variants and reports of waning immunity from its existing shots. But the CDC is pushing back, saying it's too early to know if that's necessary and that it's not Pfizer's decision alone. For vaccine providers, use the federal government's online tool, call 1-800-232-0233, or text your ZIP code to 438829 (GETVAX).
Thanks, Julie J., for this gorgeous shot of the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County. Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
END GOALS: Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has 18 months left in office and tells the AP his main focus is convincing the GOP-controlled legislature to modernize state aid disbursements to get more money to Pennsylvania's poorest schools. Also on Wolf's to-do list: adding tolls to nine major interstate bridges and forcing power plants to pay for greenhouse gas emissions, both tough sells to the GOP majority.

BLOCK AUDIT: Pennsylvania's Department of State is now looking to prevent counties from participating in state Sen. Doug Mastriano's contested, third-party election audit, calling it a security and election integrity threat. Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman called the intervention "an attack on the General Assembly's power.

ZERO PLEDGE: Pennsylvania public radio stations went from receiving millions in state budget support to zero this year amid a multibillion-dollar surplus and one station's hard-line approach to calling out election-denying lawmakers. GOP legislators say the cut was Wolf's idea, but Wolf's office told the Capital-Star that's not how it works.

OFFLINE WORK: Scores of Pennsylvania families weathered subpar internet during the pandemic, particularly in the least-wealthy counties. President Joe Biden's sprawling infrastructure plan wants $65 billion to increase high-speed access coast to coast. But USA Today Network reports some question whether it'll help the people who need it most.

NO NAME: The Pennsylvania Lottery Commission has repeatedly ignored transparency-minded rules that bar anonymity for lottery winners, per the Bucks County Courier Times. Just last week, two attorneys claimed a $516 million prize on behalf of five winners who formed a trust to maintain anonymity, once again contradicting the law.
VOTING VISIT: President Joe Biden will be in Philadelphia tomorrow to talk about actions his administration will take to "protect the sacred, constitutional right to vote," The Inquirer reports. The visit comes on the heels of a Democrat-led voting rights bill being stifled by U.S. Senate Republicans.

EYE TO EYE: It's Monday. Treat yourself to this photo of Fred Rogers and Koko the Gorilla staring deep into the other's soul. Apparently, the Ivy League-educated ape was a big fan and took off Rogers' shoes when they met, just like Rogers did at the start of each episode.

SCOOTING: Pennsylvania quietly gave the green light to an electric scooter rental pilot program here — with one catch. Only second-class cities qualify, meaning yes for Pittsburgh and no for Philadelphia. All of this was made possible by a provision tucked 55 pages into the new state budget.

WELL CITY: Meet Chelsey Lowe, one half of the duo behind Philadelphia's Well City Challenge, a citywide quest to develop new ventures that boost the health of millennial Philadelphians with $100,000 in awards, Billy Penn reports. One winner? An app that helps connect Black women across generations

BITE MARKS: It's Shark Week at Sheetz, a phonetically challenging phrase with a big, blue companion doughnut, per WTAJ. Is there any other reason to be talking about sharks in landlocked Pennsylvania? Actually, The Incline's ancient shark beat found out the answer is definitely yes
Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

Friday's answer: Dictionary (also accepted: Indicatory)

Congrats to our weekly winner: Phil M.

Congrats to our daily winners: Neal W., David I., Don H., Bill C., Doris T., Becky C., Kim C., Bruce T., James B., Susan D., Elaine C., Dianne K., Elijah R., Michelle T., Heidi B., Deb N., Tish M., Dennis M., Irene R., Suzanne S., Craig W., Joel S., David W., Karen W., George S., Ron P., Kevin H., Elizabeth W., Barbara A., Beth T., and Bob R. (left off Friday's list).
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