State jobless center workers being laid off in funding fight

Written by The Associated Press | Dec 19, 2016 5:35 PM

Photo by AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Claims examiner Penny Erney, who is undergoing chemotherapy, packs up her cubical at Office of Unemployment Compensation in Harrisburg, Pa., Monday, Dec. 19, 2016. Erney is one of about 500 workers at the state Department of Labor and Industry were spending their last day on the job Monday, before being laid off because of a funding dispute between the Wolf Administration and Senate Republicans.

(Harrisburg) -- Hundreds of state employees caught in an unemployment compensation program funding dispute between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's administration and Senate Republicans spent their last day on the job Monday before they qualify for jobless benefits themselves.

Officials said there were no signs of a last-minute reprieve that could help about 520 people avoid being laid off less than a week before Christmas from the state Department of Labor and Industry's unemployment compensation call centers.

Wolf's administration is cutting jobs and closing unemployment compensation call centers in Allentown, Altoona and Lancaster without the $58 million from unemployment compensation tax revenue it said is necessary to maintain the centers at current staff levels.

Senate Republicans wrapped up the chamber's legislative business without voting on the funding bill sought by Wolf, saying they were unsatisfied with Wolf's answers on how the money would be used. Senate Republicans have not committed to approving funding when they return to the Capitol next month.

Diane Bowman, of the Service Employees International Union Local No. 668, which represents more than 300 of the affected workers, said, "I would hope that would be the case, but I don't have any reason to believe it's going to happen magically."

The final count of layoffs was still being settled Monday, as small numbers of workers were simply retiring or finding other positions.

One of the laid-off workers, Penny Erney, a claims examiner in Harrisburg, said she has no job prospects but hopes the state may call her back. She said the office held a goodbye luncheon on Friday for her and others facing layoffs but something was lacking.

"I mean, everything was there -- the food was there, it was delicious," Erney said. "It's just, a celebrative mood wasn't."

Many of the workers have filed appeals to the State Civil Service Commission, saying they should not be laid off when funds are available and there is work that needs to be done. Commission spokesman Jack McGettigan said five more appeals were received Monday. He said the appeals will be presented to the commission at its January meeting.

Wolf has blamed the Senate GOP for the layoffs, saying he has given it information about the Service Improvement and Infrastructure Fund.

The General Assembly approved a four-year funding bill in 2013 in response to the federal government's accusation the state wasn't paying first-time jobless benefits quickly enough. A fifth year of funding passed the state House overwhelmingly in October.

But Senate Republicans balked, saying they wanted more details about how the money would be spent. Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, said he wants more accountability from the administration.

"You ask one question, you get an answer," said Wagner, who met with affected employees at the unemployment call center in Altoona last week. "And that answer prompts another question. It's like the gift that keeps on giving."

After the layoffs, the state will still have call centers in Duquesne, Indiana, Erie and Scranton and as part of its operations in Harrisburg.

An earlier story is below:

Hundreds of state employees are spending their last day on the job before they're laid off because of an unemployment compensation program funding dispute between the Wolf administration and the state Senate's Republican majority.

The Department of Labor and Industry said Monday it was still finalizing the list, but about 520 people were expected to be out of a job by the end of the day.

The state is cutting the workers and closing unemployment compensation call centers in Altoona, Allentown and Lancaster to address a $58 million budget hole.

Officials say the total number of layoffs may end up being slightly smaller, as some workers will simply retire and others are being placed in other positions.

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