SC unemployment agency plans to lay off 100; Area offices to stay open

South Carolina’s unemployment agency is laying off 100 employees in June as part of a statewide reorganization that directs anyone seeking jobless benefits to use its upgraded online system, the agency’s interim director announced Tuesday.

John Finan said the Department of Employment and Workforce will eliminate one-on-one help with unemployment claims June 10, and the number of local offices offering job training and other re-employment services will shrink. Exactly how many of those 56 offices remain open past June will depend on decisions made by the state’s 12 workforce investment boards, he told The Associated Press before the official announcement.

The announcement comes two months after the elimination of in-person unemployment help at 17 rural offices caused a backlash from legislators. Democrats particularly denounced the move as an attack on rural South Carolina, and the outrage culminated in the resignation of former Director Abraham Turner.

Finan said even that cut – as well as hiring and travel freezes – weren’t enough to offset the loss of federal money, which funds the agency’s operations. DEW’s declining workload – processing 50,000 claims filed weekly compared to nearly 140,000 in early 2011 – required a statewide restructuring that brings South Carolina in line with how most states already handle claims, he said.

“We were way out of touch with other states in the country. We’re coming up to modern times with technology,” Finan said.

He insists that the continued downsizing creates an opportunity to shift the agency’s focus.

“We’re trying to refocus from unemployment, which has been the mantra for the office, to re-employment,” Finan said. “We need to work on innovative things the state can do and locals can do to really put people to work.”

Affected workers will receive notices this week. The vast majority of layoffs will come from local offices.

But they won’t end there.

Automatic federal spending cuts call for the phasing out of an additional 29 weeks of federally paid unemployment benefits. By year’s end, laid-off workers will be eligible only for the maximum of 20 weeks of benefits allowed under state law. When that program’s gone, the agency can’t continue to pay the workers who ran it, Finan said.

The combined cuts would bring the agency’s workforce to about 850.

That doesn’t include an unknown number of layoffs locally. The state’s 12 local workforce investment boards get money directly from the federal government to supply re-employment services, such as career counseling, workshops, skills testing, job referrals and help writing resumes. And those boards, which run the local offices and share the cost with the agency, also are getting less money.

The reorganization announcement follows more than a month of discussions with local officials on how to handle declining revenue, Finan said.

An advocate for the poor said the agency’s moves will be devastating for the unemployed and their ability to find work.

“They’ve already done enough things to create barriers,” said Sue Berkowitz of Appleseed Legal Justice Center. It shows that “unemployed workers and the plight they’re going through is not a priority of this administration.”

While offices will close, Finan insists that residents in all 46 counties will continue to have access to services.

Each of the 12 areas will have at least one workforce center offering all re-employment services, as well as computer access and help with online claims filing. Local officials are choosing various ways to continue services throughout their region, from mobile units to satellite offices, he said. The agency is partnering with technical schools, libraries, churches and community groups to provide computer access in all counties.

Legislators have pointed out that many laid-off workers may lack the computer skills to file online.

The upgraded website now includes a tutorial, and people can call a toll-free number to guide them through the steps. Statewide, 98 percent of initial claims already are filed online, according to the agency.

The upcoming layoffs will reduce agency costs by $5 million to $6 million, Finan said.

Area offices to stay open

Offices offering employment assistance in York, Chester and Lancaster counties will stay open, regional officials said Tuesday.

The Catawba Regional Workforce Investment Board has decided to keep offices in each county open rather than open one regional office, said Randy Imler of the Catawba Regional Council of Governments, the fiscal agent for the investment board.

The change announced by the state Tuesday will mean a significant drop in walk-in traffic to the local offices, Imler said. He estimated that between 50 percent to 80 percent of the people going to the Rock Hill office on West Main Street were for unemployment insurance filings or questions. Those inquiries will now be handled online.

With the change, the Catawba Workforce Investment Board intends to relocate the employment assistance to an office in downtown Rock Hill, near City Hall. No locations for offices in Chester or Lancaster were announced.

The move should happen in July, Imler said.

By Seanna Adcox, Associated Press/Don Worthington, Staff Reporter with The Herald