State lays off 450 before Christmas, perhaps 150 more; politics blamed

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – At 10 a.m. on Friday in the Labor & Industry building, the clock struck midnight.

“There were a lot of tears, a lot of worrying because Christmas is coming,” said Brad Mengel, who was told Friday that come December 19, he no longer has a job.

L&I announced it’s closing three unemployment compensation service centers in Allentown, Altoona, and Lancaster. About 450 workers, who mostly process unemployment claims, got furlough notices Friday. Another 150 could soon follow.

“We don’t have the funding. We don’t have the money to pay staff,” L&I spokeswoman Sara Goulet said.

The money, $57.5 million, was in House Bill 2375. The state Senate was expected to pass it on its final day, Wednesday. The House had previously passed it and Gov. Tom Wolf was poised to sign it, but it never came up for a vote.

Sen. Scott Wagner (R-York) said he was a vocal opponent in caucus and convinced his colleagues to stall. Wagner says he’s not sure it’s money well spent.

“We have zero accountability for $57 million and, oh, by the way, it’s $5 million more than we spent last year on the program,” Senate GOP spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said.

Senate Republicans say the governor is manufacturing a crisis by laying off workers. They say he could’ve found money to pay them until the legislature returns in January and figures out a fix.

“Certainly during the budget impasse, and other times, he found all kinds of money to fund all kinds of things that were his priorities,” Kocher said, “so I think the message to these employees is you are not the priority.”

Wolf spokesman Mark Nicastre calls that untrue and insists that when there’s a finished budget, the governor does not have flexibility to move money around and fund favored projects.

“This is an outrage. It’s an insult to the citizens of Pennsylvania,” said Tom Herman, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 668.

Herman says 300 of his union workers will be laid off and he blames grandstanding by gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner.

“We believe that Scott Wagner is using our system and Pennsylvania citizens who are eligible for unemployment in a political game to make the governor look bad,” Herman said. “This is playing politics at its lowest.”

Anyone trying to make an unemployment claim after the layoffs take effect will need to be patient, according to Goulet. Labor & Industry had improved its customer service and response times in recent years.

Come December when three service centers are shuttered?

“The remaining five centers are gonna get a lot busier and it’s gonna be harder to get through on the phone,” Goulet said.

And in a cruel and ironic twist, employees who help shepherd others through the unemployment compensation system will now need the service.

Mengel let out a long and audible sigh.

“Six days before Christmas. I feel pretty bad about it.”

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