Wagner gives $150 to some furloughed employees
More than 500 employees lost their jobs when three state unemployment compensation centers officially closed Monday, but state Sen. Scott Wagner gave one of the centers' workers a parting gift.
A photo from one of the now former state Department of Labor and Industry employees shows a card from Wagner that reads: "Please accept the contents in the (envelope) as a small gesture of my appreciation for your service. I am truly sorry that the layoffs are happening, especially at this time of the year. I will continue to fight to get to the bottom of this disaster. Please enjoy the holiday and stay warm!"
The letter included $150 in cash.
Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, said Tuesday that he felt the money and cards were something small he could do for people he feels were "thrown under the bus."
He only gave the gifts to furloughed employees from the Altoona center, he said, because he recently visited that office. He handed out about 100 cards, he said.
The other centers that closed were in Lancaster and Allentown. Wagner previously visited the Lancaster center and said he might connect with those workers soon. He said he was asked not to visit the Allentown center.
Blame game: Wagner has been a primary focus of criticism among the furloughed workers and their unions after the Senate failed to vote on a bill that would have provided the department an additional $57.5 million in funding for the 2016-17 fiscal year.
Wagner said he led the charge against holding a vote on the bill, which passed in the House 175-13, because the department had already received four years of additional funding and needed to be held accountable for not showing improvements.
Department statistics issued to Senate leadership before the end of session show the additional funding had been used to prevent layoffs and push its unemployment compensation program above federal standards.
Department spokeswoman Sara Goulet wrote in an email that wait times for unemployment claim calls have gotten longer since the furloughed workers were taken off calls in late November.
Goulet added that the department anticipates wait times will become longer in January, which is typically the busiest month for claims.
The department has added a video, tutorial and other information to its website, at uc.pa.gov, to help people get answers to questions that don't necessarily require a phone call.
Tom Herman, president of SEIU 668, which represents many of the furloughed workers, said his organization and its members will continue to point to Wagner as the reason for the layoffs and subsequent deterioration of the state's unemployment compensation program.
Wagner, who plans to run for governor in 2018, has blamed Gov. Tom Wolf for the layoffs and filed a Right-to-Know request recently with the Labor Department to see all correspondence relating to the layoffs and center closures.
Wagner said he has yet to receive a response to his request, filed in early December.
Acceptable gifts? Herman said Wagner appears to be "exorcising some guilt" by sending the cash to laid-off workers, though he believes the gifts were well-intentioned.
"The bottom line is our members need jobs, not handouts," he said.
Laurie Haines, a now-former supervisor at the closed Lancaster center, said the $150 is just a "slap in the face" after Wagner chose to block a vote on the funding bill.
Haines, of York City, suggested the former workers might not be allowed to accept the money if they want to potentially get their jobs back because of a ban on state employees receiving gifts. The ban was imposed via executive order by Wolf in 2015.
Wagner said the gifts were legal because they are no longer state employees, and Herman guessed that he was correct.
Representatives from the Labor Department and governor's office could not immediately confirm if that interpretation was accurate.
Haines, who had been at the center for 16 years, said she hasn't had time to think about being unemployed because she's been busy collecting donated toys to help the furloughed members' children have an enjoyable Christmas.
Herman said many of his members have filed civil-service appeals in an effort to regain their jobs, and they're expecting to receive hearings within the next 30 days.