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Juneteenth will be marked by celebrations today, next week

Today is Juneteenth.

And it’s stacking up to be a Juneteenth unlike any other.

A holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves in 1865 and black freedom, a spotlight has been cast on Juneteenth this year as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests that have been taking place across the nation, and the increased awareness of how systemic racism has played out over American history.

Juneteenth has also become part of the national conversation, thanks to President Trump’s decision to hold a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., on Juneteenth. Tulsa is the site of a notorious 1921 massacre that killed at least 26 black residents of Tulsa and decimated a thriving black residential and business district. The rally was later shifted to Saturday so it would not occur on Juneteenth.

Tashekia Russell, who grew up in Pittsburgh, told The Washington Post that Juneteenth is “like Fourth of July for us. How have so many never known? We really live in two Americas.”

Why is Juneteenth celebrated on June 19? On June 19, 1865, two years after the end of the Civil War, federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to let slaves know that they were free. It was the last outpost to hear that slavery had been abolished and the war was over. It was made an official state holiday in Texas 40 years ago, and 46 states and Washington, D.C., now observe Juneteenth. It’s also been made a holiday by such companies as Nike, J.C. Penney, Twitter and The New York Times.

In 2019, June 19 became the Juneteenth National Freedom Day in Pennsylvania. In a statement released Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf said this Juneteenth “is a moment to honor African American history and reflect on how each of us can promote equality, liberty and justice for all people.”

The governor also said, “This Juneteenth we have an opportunity to unite against injustice and create lasting change that will make Pennsylvania and our nation a better place for everyone.”

A Juneteenth celebration is planned for June 27 from 3 to 7 p.m. at the LeMoyne Community Center in Washington. Organizer Lorrin Dixon said they will “teach a bit of history,” and there will be food, music and some games.

“This is something a friend and I have talked about doing for years,” Dixon said.

He acknowledged that the turmoil across the United States has brought attention to Juneteenth, “but if what’s going on in the country helps people get together, I’ll take it.”

Allegheny County has no COVID-19 deaths for two straight days

Allegheny County reported no new COVID-19 deaths for two consecutive days Thursday.

There were no other deaths from the virus reported that day in Western Pennsylvania, according to state records.

The case counts in Washington and Greene counties also had stabilized again at 158 and 30, respectively.

“I think Washington County citizens have done a very good job of flattening the curve,” commission Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan said Thursday.

She said she hopes residents continue to take precautions “so it stays that way.”

Irey Vaughan said some people are not wearing face masks in Courthouse Square, prompting the commissioners to place signs requiring them in locations, including elevators in that building.

The virus has killed 6,361 people in Pennsylvania since late March. The state Health Department added 42 new deaths Thursday to that total.

Gov. Tom Wolf said mask wearing is “critical in stopping the spread of COVID, now and in preparation for a possible resurgence of the virus in the fall.”

He reminded the public Thursday that wearing face masks is still required when entering any business in the entire state.

Main Street Farmers Market open for business

It occurred later than originally anticipated, but opening day for the 18th season of the Main Street Farmers Market took place Thursday afternoon.

Organizers of the market took necessary safety precautions related to COVID-19, such as offering hand sanitizer at the entrances and exits, having pedestrian traffic flow in one direction and providing masks for those who didn’t bring them. The cleaning and protective products were provided by Red House Consulting, the market’s community wellness sponsor.

A feature of the event is providing $2 in market tokens for every $1 of SNAP benefits redeemed, which is made possible by the support of Washington Financial Bank, EQT Corp. and the Food Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that everyone has access to affordable, nutritious food and information to make healthy decisions.

Sponsors for the market, which takes place from 3 to 6 p.m. Thursdays in the Main Street parking lot near Wheeling Street, are Campbell Insurance Associates, Rotary Club of Washington, Washington Health System, Washington & Jefferson College, WJPA and the Observer-Reporter, along with Red House, EQT and Washington Financial.

For more information, visit http://msfm.org.

PUA concerns focus of Labor & Industry town hall

PUA questions and concerns were plentiful and prominent Thursday afternoon, during the fourth weekly virtual town hall hosted by the state Department of Labor & Industry.

Back payments remain an issue with the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, through which unemployment compensation benefits are paid to the self-employed, gig workers, contractors and others not normally eligible for UC. As in previous town halls, several Pennsylvanians reported they have been unable to file online for back weeks of PUA. And, again, there were complaints that the back-dated button sent them into a black hole.

“We’re trying to deactivate the back-dated button,” said Susan Dickinson, director of L&I’s Unemployment Compensation Benefits Policy. “Avoid the back-dated button. It confuses people.”

Instead, she and department Secretary Jerry Oleksiak discussed how L&I has shifted to a policy where it will open claim weeks for PUA applicants to file on days based on the last digit of one’s Social Security number. The first round began this week and will end Friday for those whose final digit ends in 7 through 9. The second round will run Sunday (0-3), Monday (4-6) and Tuesday (7-9).

“The only available day you can file is based on your Social Security number,” Dickinson said. “We hope after two rounds, everyone has their back weeks.”

Several times during the event, she reminded the virtual audience that a PUA claim must be “COVID-related.”

A PUA recipient can receive up to 39 weeks of payments, beginning on the date the individual became unemployed. He or she also will get $600 per week from Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.

Both sets of benefits were established through the federal CARES Act, along with PEUC (Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation), which provides 13 weeks of benefits to people who exhaust their regular UC.

The CARES Act was enacted March 25 to provide economic assistance to workers and their families.

Gov. Tom Wolf ordered state offices to be closed Friday for Juneteenth, so phone calls to Labor & Industry will go unanswered. Online access will be available, however, for anyone with UC questions.

An estimated 2.8 million initial unemployment compensation claims have been filed since the pandemic began to wreak havoc in Pennsylvania in mid-March. Claimants have received $16.9 billion in UC benefits, roughly split between regular UC and CAREs Act-created benefits.

L&I will have its fourth consecutive weekly town hall at 1 p.m. next Thursday. To participate, online or by telephone, visit https://access.live/PAlabor or call 833-380-0719.

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Parent company furloughing 180 employees at Meadows

About 180 employees at the Meadows Racetrack & Casino are facing permanent furloughs, according to a June WARN report on the state Department of Labor & Industry website.

Employees at The Meadows’ off-track betting site in Harmar Township, Allegheny County, also will be laid off, raising the total to 200-plus.

The layoffs are to take effect Aug. 15, according to the report. WARN is an acronym for Worker Adjustment and Retaining Notification Act, a federal statute that requires employers with 100 or more employees to give 60 calendar days of notice of closing or mass layoffs.

The report reads: Washington Trotting Accusation (should be Association), d/b/a The Meadows Race Track and Casino, 210 Racetrack Road, Washington, PA 15301, Affecting 180.

Those furloughs are among more than 26,000 employees that Penn National Gaming Inc., parent of the North Strabane Township facility, has had to furlough during the coronavirus pandemic. Penn National operates 41 gaming and racing facilities and numerous video gaming terminal sites.

Eric Schippers Sr., vice president of Public Affairs & Government Relations for Penn National, said in a prepared statement:

“Based on the sudden and unforeseeable events in March, we were forced to furlough 26,000 of our team members in April. At the time, we were hopeful that we’d be able to call the employees back within a couple of months. However, while we have been able to reopen some of our properties on a limited basis, the continued social distancing requirements and uncertain business volumes means our properties will not be able to resume normal operations for the foreseeable future.

“After thoroughly reevaluating our business in light of the ongoing pandemic, we wanted to communicate honestly and openly with our team members that it could be some time before all of our remaining properties are open, and that those properties that are open will unfortunately not require the same level of staffing due to limitations and restrictions placed on occupancy and offerings to create a safer environment.

“As a result, we informed our team members that their furloughs may be converted to a permanent layoff in the coming weeks or months. We had a legal obligation to send a formal WARN notice to all the team members who could potentially be laid off. To be clear, however, that does not necessarily mean that all those team members will be laid off.

“These are extremely challenging times both on a personal and a professional level, but the steps we have taken to this point, and plan to take going forward, are all aimed at positioning our company and the majority of our team members to be able to weather this storm and come out stronger on the other side.”