An advocacy group gathered in Market Square on Tuesday to drum up support for an extension of federal unemployment benefits, just weeks before the program is set to expire.
Pennsylvania Wants to Work seized the Valentine's Day opportunity to tell Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) to "have a heart," and agree to extend unemployment compensation insurance for laid-off workers. The handful of activists passed out heart-shaped petitions asking GOP legislators to extend the jobless benefits.
Congressional Republicans want the unemployment benefits program to be slimmed down and reformed before they'll agree to another renewal. A two-month extension has been in place since the previous deadline in December.
"The Republican, Tea Party members of Congress are absolutely intransigent in insisting on massive cuts to unemployment, so it's kind of like we'll have to destroy unemployment compensation in this country to save it," said David Ninehouser, the Pittsburgh coordinator for PA Wants to Work. "They're also pushing for very divisive issues, like forced drug tests for unemployed workers."
Ninehouser said with economic indicators finally improving, now is not the time to cut off unemployment benefits. The U.S. Department of Labor said benefits are set to expire in the first week of March this year.
Father Jack O'Malley, Labor Chaplain for the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, said Republican legislators may have misconceptions about the nation's unemployed.
"This stereotyped image of, 'People don't want to work. They're lazy,' — I would say that percentage is so low that we would punish over 99 percent of the people who really want a good job," said O'Malley.
If benefits aren't extended, many in the Pittsburgh area will turn to local organizations for help, said Joe Delale of the United Way.
"The United Way help-line is overextended. There's so many calls coming in for utility help, for mortgage assistance, rent assistance, it's just totally unbelievable, and you can only do so much because there's only so many dollars that can go around," said Delale.
Delale said the United Way is already reaching out to the soon-to-be-unemployed workers at Saks Fifth Avenue, which is scheduled to be shut down in mid-March.