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SEASONAL WORKERS HURT BY CHANGES IN UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE

David Girdlestone has worked in construction since 1959, so he's used to collecting unemployment between jobs.

But this summer when a construction job ended, the Hamburg resident said he was shut out of benefits because of changes in the unemployment insurance system.

"I had 21 weeks in -- I would've been eligible (under the old rules)," said Girdlestone, 60.

Sweeping changes in unemployment insurance that took effect April 1 are begining to show their flaws now, labor leaders say, as some seasonal workers find themselves cut off from benefits they have come to count on.

The new rules use calendar quarters to determine eligibility instead of the number of weeks worked.

"We have people not qualifying who would have qualified for the full $300 (weekly benefit) under the old system," said Thomas W. Burke, business manager of Carpenters Local 9.

The changes, which also increased the maximum weekly benefit from $300 to $365, were billed as keeping seasonal workers safe from benefit cuts.

The Labor Department hasn't seen a problem with the new formula, Communications Director Betsy McCormack said.

"We do have an alternative base period" that increases workers' chances of qualifying for benefits, something few other states offer, she said.

Ms. McCormack said figures weren't immediately available on whether the department is turning away more workers than in past years.

"The department is in denial," said Ed Donnelly, legislative director of the state AFL-CIO.

"Seasonal people will be going off season in a month or so, and they're going to have trouble sustaining their families."

Under the new rules, workers who earned most of their income in a single quarter don't qualify for benefits. Earnings for the year must be 1.5 times the earnings in the highest quarter.

For example, Girdlestone earned $17,000 in the spring on a heavy-overtime job for a contractor in Olean, he said. Because his earnings the rest of the year were much lower, he doesn't qualify for benefits.

"They give it to people earning $10,000 or $12,000 all year, they won't give it to me -- I feel like I'm being penalized for working overtime," he said.

The state Assembly this summer passed a bill to revert to the old eligibility rules, but a companion measure sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Spano of Yonkers failed to pass in the Senate.

About 29,000 people are unemployed in Erie and Niagara counties, according to the most recent estimate by the state Labor Department. The number filing new claims for unemployment benefits was unavailable.

Claims from seasonal workers will peak in the next few months, Donnelly said, although its impossible to tell how many will be cut out of benefits. Those who are will probably encounter trouble maintaining their health insurance coverage, he said. Construction unions have developed systems for coverage that share work between members and assume periods of unemployment benefits, he said.

Burke of the Carpenters Local 9 said not only union members but, many other seasonal workers will be affected by the benefit change.

Donnelly plans a meeting next week with Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno to craft a bill that will address the benefit gap, he said.

"It shouldn't cost any more money than the agency would have spent last year anyway," he said. The formula changes were supposed to safeguard existing benefits for seasonal workers.

The AFL-CIO and the Business Council both supported the overhaul of the unemployment system, which sailed through the Legislature last year. Labor's support was based on an agreement that existing beneficiaries wouldn't be cut out by the new formula, Donnelly said. The Labor Department has the authority to modify the eligibility rules without new legislative action, he said.

"We'll pass something anyway if that will make them happy," he said.

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