Short-term fix for unemployment compensation on its way
- Bill providing up to $15 million for state's unemployment compensation system passes House & Senate.
- Additional funding expected to temporarily bring back less than half of 500 employees furloughed.
- Furloughs and closures of call centers have led to drastic increase in call wait times to centers.
A bill to provide temporary financial relief to the state's struggling unemployment compensation system is heading to the desk of a willing governor after passing through the General Assembly.
Gov. Tom Wolf plans to sign the bill — providing up to $15 million to the state Department of Labor and Industry — on Monday, according to a spokesman in his office.
The department is expected to use the money to bring back less than half of the nearly 500 employees it furloughed late last year.
Tom Herman, president of Service Employees International Union Local 668, which represents many of the furloughed workers, called the bill's passage "bittersweet" because the extra workers will help unemployed residents, but he wanted to bring back all of his members.
"The program was grossly understaffed even before the furloughs," Herman said. "This funding will provide temporary relief, but our job is still not done."
Background: The department has been suffering from a drastic increase in call-wait times to its centers since the furloughs and closures of centers in Altoona, Allentown and Lancaster.
The furloughs and closures followed a decision by the Republican-controlled Senate not to vote on a bill that would have provided $57.5 million in additional funding for those operations.
Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, said that he had led the charge against holding a vote on the bill because of a lack of accountability by the department for the money already allocated to it.
The Legislature had allocated about $178 million in additional funding from 2013 to 2016 for the unemployment compensation system, and nearly $170 million was spent before then to modernize the department's technology, which remains outdated.
Wagner was one of just a handful of legislators to vote against the latest bill, introduced by Republican Sen. Kim Ward of Westmoreland County.
The bill passed the Senate, 39-8, in late March before passing the House, 189-4, on Tuesday. The Senate had to vote again on concurrence Wednesday because the House added an amendment that spells out exactly how the $15 million must be used by the department, specifically with regard to staffing.
The Auditor General's Office is conducting an audit of the unemployment compensation system — expected to be completed by the end of April — and Wagner said the Legislature should have waited until the audit was complete before granting any additional funding.
"This is just another example of Harrisburg acting before having all the facts," Wagner said.
Next steps: Once Wolf signs the bill — as expected — the timetable for bringing back furloughed employees is still unknown, according to Herman.
The union contract spells out a recall process for employees based on seniority, Herman said, but the closures of the call centers could complicate matters.
The center in Altoona is still a state-owned property, but the centers in Lancaster and Allentown cannot be reopened because the buildings were leased.
Christopher Good, one of the furloughed workers who had been working in Harrisburg, said he's ready to go back to work immediately if he's called.
Labor secretary Kathy Manderino told legislators during budget meetings that the department would need three to six weeks to ramp back up once funding was approved, but department officials could not provide any official timetable when asked on Wednesday.
Despite only working for the department for two years, Good said he's hopeful he'll be called back because the Harrisburg office is still in place.
He's been unable to find work since being furloughed partly because employers knew he could be called back to the department at any time, he said.
The $15 million will allow the department to bring back approximately 214 employees for nine months while the Legislature works out a long-term solution, according to a spokesman for the House Labor and Industry Committee.
J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Wolf's office, said the system will be thrown back into chaos if the General Assembly doesn't find a long-term solution.