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State employees rally against furloughs
The Pennsylvania Senate ended its legislative session two weeks ago, but more than two dozen people outside the Department of Labor and Industry building in Harrisburg on Monday evening made it clear they think there is still work to be done.
Many in the group were among the nearly 600 state employees who were given furlough notices after the Senate failed to vote on House Bill 2375, which would authorize $57.5 million in funding for the department’s unemployment call centers in 2017.
Furloughed state employees will be out of a job Dec. 19, less than a week before Christmas — a “travesty,” said local union leader Tom Herman.
Herman, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 668, said it is “an outrage” that Republican leadership in the Senate could not bring the bill to a vote, having known for months that call-center funding was due to expire at the end of the year.
“All they had to do was vote the legislation,” Herman told the crowd through a bullhorn. “But we have, in the state system, a wannabe governor who is using you as a political toy in order to promote himself. This is partisan politics at its worst.”
The person Herman was referring to is state Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, who took credit for denying a vote on the bill.
“I dug my foot in ... They didn’t get the job done and need to be held accountable. Let them close down,” Wagner told The York Dispatch about the call centers after the Senate finished its schedule for the year.
There’s still time: Herman and other ralliers urged the state Senate to reconvene for a vote on the bill. Though the Senate finished its legislative schedule two weeks ago, the session runs until Nov. 30, giving lawmakers less than 48 hours to push through an unlikely resolution.
State Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Harrisburg, said the bill was on the Senate schedule on Nov. 16 and the chamber was ready to pass a one-year funding extension.
Though there are some “legitimate long-term issues” with unemployment compensation, it is “a routine exercise” to authorize the funding, and there is no reason the Senate could not return to session to get the bill over the finish line, Teplitz said.
Without a resolution, unemployment compensation service centers In Lancaster, Allentown and Altoona will shut down, and employees at the Harrisburg Overflow Center could be furloughed.
That could include Spring Garden Township resident Debra Zink, who has worked at the Harrisburg office since 2009.
Even if the Senate does return and pass the bill by the end of the day Wednesday, Zink said she was told by officials in Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration that the furloughed workers will not be given their jobs back.
Because of her relative seniority, Zink has not been furloughed yet, but she said she will have to survive two more rounds of layoffs. If she can keep a job with the department, Zink said, she will be in a new position with substantially lower wages.
Though she hopes to keep a job in state government in order to retain some of her retirement benefits, Zink said she has applied for numerous jobs in the private sector, as well, since the furloughs began.
The rallies held in Harrisburg, Lancaster, Altoona and Allentown on Monday were not just about state workers losing their jobs, Zink said. Unemployed workers across the state will see delays in accessing their unemployment insurance policies, she said.
“(People) aren’t going to have money to buy food, pay their bills,” Zink said. “I understand it’s only six months of unemployment, but that’s six months that gives them enough time to hopefully find another job.”
Compounding the problem: While Senate leaders debated a vote on HB 2375, Wolf signed a bill making 44,000 seasonal workers eligible for unemployment compensation benefits, according to the SEIU.
Winter is a time of year when service centers struggle to keep up with the caseload, with thousands of calls going unanswered, Zink said. With 600 fewer employees and tens of thousands of people newly eligible for unemployment compensation benefits as of Jan. 1, Pennsylvania’s antiquated system could be doomed.
“The irony is you’re going to have hundreds of state employees out of work, unemployed — the same people who are charged with helping people who are unemployed — at the same time when we just made thousands of seasonal workers eligible again to receive unemployment compensation,” Teplitz said.
Wagner defended the decision to let service centers shut down by suggesting much of the centers’ work could be moved online.
Zink disagreed, saying the state’s unemployment compensation system is old and not set up to perform certain functions. Some of the centers’ work can be moved online, but many claimants would need to call the centers for assistance in the case of any problems, she said.
The increased workload and decreased workforce could leave people waiting on hold for four to five hours at a time before getting assistance with their claims, Zink said.
“Our jobs are done,” Zink said. “But these claimants, these people who are out here unemployed, they’re going to be as desperate as we are.”
The SEIU Local 668 has planned another rally at 5 p.m. Wednesday outside Sen. Scott Wagner’s district office at 218 N. George St. in York.