State jobless center workers being laid off in funding fight

MARK SCOLFORO, The Associated Press

HARRISBURG — Hundreds of state employees caught in an unemployment compensation program funding dispute between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's administration and Senate Republicans spent their last day on the job Monday before they qualify for jobless benefits themselves.

Officials said there were no signs of a last-minute reprieve that could help about 520 people avoid being laid off less than a week before Christmas from the state Department of Labor and Industry's unemployment compensation centers.

Wolf's administration is cutting jobs and closing unemployment compensation call centers in Allentown, Altoona and Lancaster without the $58 million from unemployment compensation tax revenue it said is necessary to maintain the centers at current staff levels.

Senate Republicans wrapped up the chamber's legislative business without voting on the funding bill sought by Wolf, saying they were unsatisfied with Wolf's answers on how the money would be used. Senate Republicans have not committed to approving funding when they return to the Capitol next month.

Diane Bowman, of the Service Employees International Union Local No. 668, which represents more than 300 of the affected workers, said, "I would hope that would be the case, but I don't have any reason to believe it's going to happen magically."

Furloughed state employee Peg Storm, of Dover Township, rallies with other state employees, supporters and SEIU Local 668 representatives outside of Senator Scott Wagner's office in York City, Monday, Dec. 19, 2016. More than 500 labor department workers were affected by the furlough. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The final count of layoffs was still being settled Monday, as small numbers of workers were simply retiring or finding other positions.

Wolf said Monday during a visit to Central York High School that he was very angry and upset that so many employees were losing their jobs, especially during the holiday season. He said there are consequences to the inaction of Senate Republicans, and people all over the state are hurting as a result of having 500 fewer employees available to handle unemployment claims.

One of the laid-off workers, Penny Erney, a claims examiner in Harrisburg, said she has no job prospects but hopes the state might call her back. She said the office held a goodbye luncheon Friday for her and others facing layoffs, but something was lacking.

"I mean, everything was there — the food was there, it was delicious," Erney said. "It's just, a celebrative mood wasn't."

Many of the workers have filed appeals to the State Civil Service Commission, saying they should not be laid off when funds are available and there is work that needs to be done. Commission spokesman Jack McGettigan said five more appeals were received Monday. He said the appeals will be presented to the commission at its January meeting.

Wolf has blamed the Senate GOP for the layoffs, saying he has given it information about the Service Improvement and Infrastructure Fund.

The General Assembly approved a four-year funding bill in 2013 in response to the federal government's accusation the state wasn't paying first-time jobless benefits quickly enough. A fifth year of funding passed the state House overwhelmingly in October.

SEIU Local 668 staff member Christopher Hundley, of Springettsbury Township, rallies with furloughed state employees and other representatives outside of Senator Scott Wagner's office in York City, Monday, Dec. 19, 2016. More than 500 labor department workers were affected by the furlough, due to lack of funding. Dawn J. Sagert photo

But Senate Republicans balked, saying they wanted more details about how the money would be spent. Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, said he wants more accountability from the administration.

"You ask one question, you get an answer," said Wagner, who met with affected employees at the unemployment call center in Altoona last week. "And that answer prompts another question. It's like the gift that keeps on giving."

After the layoffs, the state will still have call centers in Duquesne, Indiana, Erie and Scranton and as part of its operations in Harrisburg.

Dispatch reporter David Weissman contributed to this story.