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PATAKI KEEPS SEASONAL WORKERS FROM BENEFITS, UNIONS CHARGE

The governor is sitting on a measure designed to close gaps in the unemployment safety net -- gaps that seasonal workers are falling through, labor leaders charge.

The Senate passed a measure last week that would reverse a change in unemployment insurance rules that took effect April 1.

The change, part of a 1998 overhaul of the system, unintentionally cut off benefits for some seasonal workers, union officials say.

"We've had a lot of people who don't qualify for benefits," said Thomas W. Burke, business manager of Carpenters Local 9 in Cheektowaga. "Ultimately it puts them in harm's way of depending on social services."

Gov. George Pataki is looking at the measure but has not acted on it, spokesman William C. Van Slyke said. He wouldn't comment further on the chances for passage.

Under the unemployment overhaul passed in August 1998, workers' earnings for the year must be 1 1/2 times their earnings in the highest-paid quarter. That means they can't make more than two-thirds of their annual income in a single quarter.

Under the old rules, an employee must have worked 20 weeks in the past year to qualify.

The amendment passed by the Senate last week would allow workers to qualify using either standard.

The Labor Department has designated people in offices around the state to help claimants understand the new rules for unemployment, Van Slyke said.

"We've established liaisons. . . to make sure people get the benefits that are due them," he said. The Labor Department announced the program Dec. 10.

Holes in the unemployment safety net may be especially painful for Western New York because of its relatively weak economy, said Assemblyman Brian M. Higgins (D-Buffalo), a sponsor of the measure. The bill passed the Assembly this summer.

"In a more healthy economy, we'd have jobs that provide employment 12 months of the year," he said.

The change from weeks to calendar quarters allowed the state to use tax department data, instead of making employers file payroll information twice, the Labor Department has said. Most other states have adopted similar systems.

The 1998 overhaul also increased the maximum weekly benefit from $300 to $365.

However, the overhaul -- passed with AFL-CIO support -- was intended to keep seasonal workers from being cut off from benefits, union officials said. Periods of unemployment are expected in seasonal industries like construction.

"This is not a union issue or a non-union issue -- it's a people issue," Burke said. Although the state AFL-CIO has taken the lead in lobbying for the change, seasonal workers are affected whether they're union members or not.

Burke said he fears the bill will be caught up in Albany bargaining. The Senate's lopsided 60-0 vote for the bill -- which was blocked from a vote in the chamber this summer -- points to a veto or political horse-trading, he said.

Higgins, although not predicting the bill's fate, said it might become linked with other issues in Albany deal-making.

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