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Joint hearing set on unemployment compensation issue

David Weissman
505-5431/@DispatchDavid
  • House and Senate Committees will hold hearing on unemployment compensation issues 11:30 a.m. Monday.
  • Call wait times and a backlog of claims have risen in unemployment centers since 500 furloughs.
  • Sen. Wagner has said he led charge against holding vote to provide department with more funding.

State Senate and House Labor and Industry committees are set to hold a joint hearing Monday on issues with the state's unemployment compensation system.

County residents needing to file for unemployment compensation are facing a long wait at CareerLink, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

The system has been a focal point in state politics since Republican Senate members opted not to vote on a bill last session to provide additional funding to the state Department of Labor and Industry, which then furloughed more than 500 employees in mid-December.

Since the layoffs, average call-wait times to the remaining centers — three of seven closed after the furloughs — have spiked from about 10 minutes to two hours while a backlog of initial claims that need to be reviewed has developed, according to the department.

Department spokeswoman Sara Goulet said Secretary Kathy Manderino will be present to answer legislators' questions at the hearing, scheduled for 11:30 a.m. in the east wing of the Capitol building.

State Reps. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, and Kate Klunk, R-Hanover, serve on the House Labor and Industry Committee, but couldn't be reached for comment Thursday. Both voted in favor of a bill last session that would have provided $57.5 million to the department; that bill passed through the House, 175-13.

Wagner's stand: State Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, serves as vice chairman of the Senate Labor and Industry Committee, and he said last year that he led the charge against holding a vote on that bill.

Wagner gives $150 to some furloughed employees

Reached by phone Thursday, Wagner declined to speak about the coming hearing because he said he was focusing on other issues at the moment, but he has said in the past that his stand stems from a lack of accountability and lack of information from Gov. Tom Wolf and the department.

Wagner, who plans to run for governor in 2018, has pointed to millions of dollars the state has spent to update the department's out-of-date computer system with, he has said, "nothing to show for it."

State Sen. Scott Wagner. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The department has been given $178 million from the state's Unemployment Compensation Fund from 2013 through 2016 to modernize the computer system and reduce call-wait times to its centers, among other things.

This funding came after a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract with IBM to improve the department's outdated computer system was cancelled because IBM was operating over budget, Goulet said.

The computer system still needs to be revamped, Goulet said, but the IBM contract did result in several improvements, and the additional funding the past four years resulted in an improved phone system and a higher efficiency in handling claims.

The additional funding was needed, in part, due to decreasing federal funding. Those dollars are tied to the number of claims, which Goulet said has dropped in recent years.The department's drop in performance since the furloughs is not expected to affect federal funding, she said.

Furloughed Labor and Industry workers and allies rally in the PA Capitol rotunda, Monday, January 23, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

Furloughed workers: Tom Herman, president of Service Employees International Union 668, which represents many of the furloughed workers, said he appreciates that legislators are looking at the issue, but he's concerned they might look at options that include bringing back only some of the furloughed workers.

"We need them to bring back the full compliment of employees they had prior to the furloughs," he said, adding that some of his members have found jobs elsewhere. "The system was already operating at less than optimal capacity."

Unions lobby in Harrisburg to fund UC centers

Goulet said bringing employees back at the closed Lancaster and Allentown service centers might present issues because those buildings were leased, while the closed Altoona center is a state-owned facility.

Goulet said the department wants to ensure that a long-term solution is reached in terms of employment to make sure they avoid a repeat of last December.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.