House reverses decision on DEW cutbacks

A decision to end some services at 17 rural employment centers across the state was abruptly reversed late Monday by a vote of the South Carolina House of Representatives.

The move to end in-person unemployment services at some locations (including Chester’s) was made on Feb. 4. Officials said then that because of continued decreases in federal funding, the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce (DEW) would regionalize some of its in-person unemployment services starting Feb. 19.

“DEW is seizing upon this challenging time as an opportunity to improve the way we do business,” said then-Executive Director Abraham J. Turner. “As we increasingly promote our self-service unemployment insurance services available online and by phone, we will ultimately increase our agency’s overall efficiency. We remain deeply committed to reemployment efforts, excellent customer service and businesses throughout South Carolina.”

Turner announced his resignation shortly after the announcement.

The move caught a number of lawmakers off-guard. MaryGail Douglas (D), the new representative from District 41 (which includes part of Chester County), said in a letter that she and other House members were not told of the move prior to Turner’s announcement.

According to a release issued early Wednesday, the House adopted a bipartisan budget amendment by Rep. Ted Vick (D- Chesterfield) and Rep. Nelson Hardwick (R-Surfside Beach) to restore the 17 rural employment centers “dismantled by the state Department of Employment and Workforce (DEW) last month.”

“We need to help the unemployed in our state get back to work,” said Rep. Vick, who co-chairs the House Rural Caucus with Rep. Hardwick. “Instead of closing the offices, this agency should have been looking for ways to increase their effectiveness, particularly in rural counties, which have the highest unemployment rates in the state.”

The amendment to the Fiscal Year 2013-14 budget not only restores in-person unemployment services to the rural centers but also could triple their funding levels. Specifically it directs the agency to spend up to $1.5 million on staff and programs to help the jobless file unemployment benefit claims and get back to work. The funds will enable more jobless residents to learn how to draft resumes, get professional training and to learn how their skills match up with the needs of employers.

On Monday, another budget amendment sponsored by Rep. Vick and Rep. Hardwick was approved by the House that authorized the transfer of $1.5 million from the administrative section of DEW’s budget to the unemployment insurance section. That amendment transferred funds but did not specify how the money was to be used.

The shift in money would not place a burden on the agency, Rep. Vick said, because the administrative section of DEW’s budget included a significant budget increase for the Fiscal 2013-14 Year, which begins July 1.

When the changes were first announced in February, State Senator Creighton Coleman (whose district includes all of Chester County), called it “an attack on rural South Carolina.” He said the plan to have Chester residents go to Lancaster for in-person services was impractical and burdensome, since residents living on the western end of the county would face a nearly two-hour round trip drive to the Lancaster office. Members of Chester County Council said the suggestion from the state that citizens use online services was fine, but noted that many people in rural areas have no internet access. They sent a letter to Gov. Nikki Haley asking her to reverse the decision. Douglas and other House members initially proposed having the in-person services returned for at least part of each week.

By Travis Jenkins, Staff Reporter with The News & Reporter