Wagner calls on Wolf to fire Labor secretary

David Weissman
  • Sen. Scott Wagner calls on Gov. Tom Wolf to fire Labor Secretary Kathy Manderino.
  • Audit found Labor and Industry could not account for exactly how $178 million was spent 2013-2016.
  • The department closed 3 offices and furloughed nearly 500 people following Wagner-led opposition to funding bill.

Following an audit that showed major accounting issues in the state Department of Labor and Industry, a local senator has called on the governor to fire the department's leader.

Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry Secretary Kathy Manderino speaks during a news conference in support of increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour at Continental Square in York City, Thursday, March 24, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, has been critical of the department for months and issued a news release Monday pushing for the termination of Labor Secretary Kathy Manderino.

Wagner has said he led a charge against voting on a bill last session that would have extended additional funding to the department. Without the additional funding, the department closed three unemployment compensation service centers and furloughed nearly 500 employees.

The furloughs and closures led to a drastic increase in call-wait times and a growing backlog of unemployment claims.

Wagner said he prevented the vote because the department needed to be held accountable for money it had already wasted, though department officials consistently pointed to improved customer service.

Last week, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said his office's audit into the department revealed it could not account for exactly how $178 million was spent, due to poor oversight.

DePasquale said the issues were likely the fault of upper-level management, though he noted the issues began during former Gov. Tom Corbett's administration, before Manderino was in place.

State Sen. Scott Wagner. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Still, Wagner said in his release that the current administration needs to start showing accountability, starting with Gov. Tom Wolf firing Manderino.

Wagner, who is running for governor in 2018, issued the release through his campaign website.

He said Manderino and Wolf are "incompetent" and should both be fired, but only the voters can fire Wolf.

Manderino could not be reached for comment.

Replies: The Wolf administration has been working to fix the issues in the Labor and Industry Department through personnel changes, improving accounting practices and other measures, Wolf press secretary J.J. Abbott said in an email.

"This is a problem that dates back three administrations and nearly a dozen years, and only the Wolf administration has taken real steps to fix these legacy issues and committed to end those practices," Abbott said.

He pointed to the damage done to the department by the Senate refusal to vote on funding at the end of last year as something that "must never happen again.

"That inaction created a chaotic and disastrous situation for nearly 500 L&I employees and tens of thousands of unemployed Pennsylvanians seeking benefits," he wrote. "A long-term funding solution is necessary to fix the legacy funding problems outlined by the auditor general, and we will continue to work with those bipartisan lawmakers focused on actually fixing this system for workers."

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party said Wagner was trying to draw attention to himself without helping the people of the state.

"Today is just another act in Scott Wagner's political sideshow that he manufactured to further his own political career at the expense of working families," Democratic Party communications director Beth Melena wrote in an email. "By his own admission, Scott Wagner led the charge in crippling the unemployment compensation system for his own benefit. Scott Wagner is the absolute worst Harrisburg has to offer, and his actions continue to hurt working families across Pennsylvania by denying them access to benefits.”

'Swamp': Beyond Wolf and Manderino, Wagner said, many other state officials should be losing their jobs over mismanagement in the labor department.

"The career bureaucrats, they're the swamp that needs to be drained," Wagner said, repeating an oft-used campaign slogan from President Donald Trump.

The Legislature did recently authorize up to $15 million for the department to apply a short-term fix in unemployment compensation services.

Furloughed Labor and Industry workers and allies, including  Laurie Haines, center, of York, stand outside Sen. Scott Wagner's office chanting "If we don't get no justice, you don't get no peace" following a rally to fund laid-off unemployment call center workers, Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

The department started alerting former employees late last week that they'd be called back to work.

About 200 employees in the Harrisburg and Altoona offices will go back to work May 15 and May 22, depending on job title, according to Tom Herman, president of SEIU 668, which represents most of the furloughed employees.

The department is able to reopen the Altoona office because it is a state-owned building, but the majority of employees in the closed Lancaster and Allentown offices were not called back because those offices were in leased buildings.

Christopher Good, one of the furloughed employees, will be returning to work in Harrisburg on May 22, he said.

Good said he's happy to be going back to work, but he doesn't want people to think the problem is solved. The $15 million is only expected to last for nine months while a long-term solution is discussed.

Good said he would be meeting with legislators until he starts back at work to urge them to finalize a solution before the end of June, when lawmakers are expected to leave for summer vacation.

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