At least four Pennsylvania agencies have informed lawmakers they need extra funds to deal with one of the pandemic’s biggest problems: staffing.
Each claims that increasing funding for support employees is one of the greatest solutions.
The Pennsylvania State Police must conduct faster background checks and investigate nuisance firms. Meanwhile, the state Department of Labor and Industry reports massive unemployment compensation fraud.
According to research, disability service providers are reducing back on services due to a lack of staffing.
“We recognize the stress, retention challenges, and vacancies,” said Rep. Joe Webster (D-Montgomery) on Wednesday. “It affects so many.”
Governor Tom Wolf’s $43.7 billion General Fund spending package still hasn’t won over the Republican majority leader in the House on Thursday.
This is the state’s largest fund. Federal and other sources, such as lottery and fuel taxes, provide tens of billions more.
“We’ve learned a lot and confirmed a lot,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Mifflin). Typical Wolf budget proposal, heavy on expenditure and weak on fiscal responsibility.
Wolf suggested last month spending nearly $4 billion more than lawmakers approved last summer, excluding almost $1 billion for pandemic relief.
The governor’s office seeks approximately $300 million more for the State Police.
That money would assist hire new staff and graduating 300 trooper cadets from the State Police academy.
The extra cash would also assist PSP to pay more detectives to target places like convenience stores that sell alcohol.
Residents of Philadelphia have long complained that some of these stores, known as stop-and-go, do not obey state liquor laws and are not held accountable.
Crime can thrive in those establishments, said State Police Commissioner Robert Evanchick.
There are infractions because they don’t have sufficient seats, space, and so on,” he stated during a hearing on March 1.
The State Police want to add 32 extra staff to help process gun purchases.
In recent weeks, some lawmakers have reported constituents having to wait more than an hour. State law allows PSP up to ten days to perform a background check since it may need to determine if someone has been convicted of a felony.
However, the computer network that runs the Instant Check background system was able to process online requests without incident last year, according to Deputy Commissioner for Staff Kristal Turner-Childs.
If you spend an hour in a dealership, that is your time. So we absolutely comprehend and notice,” Childs added.
A rise in background check employees would help stop possible firearms crimes, according to PSPS. Last year, the Instant Check System led to over 500 firearms arrests.
LABOR & IND
Jennifer Berrier, secretary of the Department of Labor and Industry, told state lawmakers that up to 47,000 unemployment benefit fraud claims remain uninvestigated.
A number of people tried to apply for benefits using someone else’s personal information, according to the agency head.
“We are at war,” Berrier stated. “We are at war with domestic criminals and domestic cybercriminals who are incredibly clever and attack us daily.”
When the pandemic started two years ago, hundreds of thousands of fresh unemployment claims were filed each week.
By early April 2020, it had risen to about 400,000. This overburdened Labor and Industry workers and several applicants were upset by the lengthy claim processing.
On March 3, roughly 10,000 new applications remained. To his constituents’ credit, Rep. Jim Struzzi (R-Indiana) stated he still helps.
Our staff tries to escalate this to your staff. Guess what we get? ‘Bad luck.’ Last week, Struzzi urged Berrier to “wait in line like everyone else.”
Even with fewer claims, the Labor & Industry department struggles to staff them. Earlier this month, it expected to hire 100 staff but only got 30.
The agency let go some of the 1,300 temporary workers hired to process the claims backlog last fall when their contracts expired. Berrier says only 200 remain.
At least $4 million extra in state financing is needed to keep a new online benefits system running. Berrier said L&I has 21 fraud investigators and expects to hire 60 more to help solve cases.
Last year, she told Congress, scammers took over $500 million in jobless benefits.
Labor and Industry request roughly $83 million from the General Fund.
This year, Pennsylvania’s education department seeks an extra $2 billion from the state’s largest account.
Approximately three-quarters of that increase would go to K-12 schools. $300 million would go to Pennsylvania’s 100 poorest schools. If allowed, it would be the state’s largest-ever.
Some Republicans in the GOP-controlled legislature doubted a large increase would improve test scores. They cite a fiscal watchdog report showing money had no impact on test scores in 2018. (Pg. 23 of this PDF).
“Make the case that we should overlook the IFO’s statement when you seek for $1.5 billion more,” Torren Ecker said (R-Adams).
According to Education Secretary Noe Ortega, the report did not look at graduation rates or attendance, which are considered by state assessors.
In an earlier WITF interview, IFO Director Matt Knittel explained the study was confined to testing the correlation between test scores and state money.
“We all believe that resources and certain circumstances do have a role in student outcomes, especially for students from special populations,” Ortega said Monday.
Last year, lawmakers agreed to a $300 million increase for schools, and the House Republican budget chairman expects it to continue this year.
More money means districts can pay more to school bus drivers, who have quit the profession due to low pay. To make up for the shortage, the Education Department contacted all commercial drivers in Pennsylvania last fall.
A government official said the department is “willing to have a conversation” about raising driver pay.
Ortega said agency authorities are exploring launching a second teacher student loan forgiveness program from those presently available.
The Education Department also intends to increase financing for state-affiliated universities by at least 5% over last year.
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The Department of Human Services wants Pennsylvania lawmakers to approve at least $3 billion more in funding for its several programs.
Pennsylvania, like most states, spends the most on human services. Since June, the state has spent about $37 billion on everything from health insurance to food stamps.
The agency said it needs the extra cash to replace federal funds used to pay for pandemic-related expenses. It also needs to assist pay direct support professionals, according to Human Services Secretary Meg Snead.
Those workers assist Pennsylvanians with impairments. Earlier this year, a poll of employers of those workers revealed that half had reduced services due to a lack of staff.
Around the same period, 26,000 direct support professionals applied for state-funded jobs, but only 2,600 were accepted.
So they can serve more people and be there for us at the end of the day, Snead said at a hearing on Wednesday.
Some remaining federal pandemic relief funds will be used to help providers pay direct support employees at least $15 per hour.
Workers should be paid at least $18/hour, say, advocates. The government said it is currently talking with providers.
Due to personnel shortages, the state permits families to hire friends or family members to aid with direct support chores. But Rep. Leanne Krueger (D-Delaware) retorted.
“Having a compassionate, qualified individual come in and support their loved one with special needs is essential,” she said.
DHS wants hundreds of millions extra for mental health and child welfare.