COLUMBIA — A collection of Statehouse Democrats on Tuesday accused Gov. Nikki Haley of “declaring war” on unemployed, rural South Carolinians.

The charge came a day after the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce announced it would end face-to-face unemployment assistance at 17 rural offices, forcing residents in those areas to drive to another office for personalized help.

Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Winnsboro, said residents affected by the change are those who can least afford the gas required to drive the extra distance, calling it “an unfair attack on working people.”

And House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford of Columbia said the counties affected are the most economically and technologically vulnerable.

Haley’s office said the war the governor is engaged in is one against unemployment. “That’s why our economy is roaring back and unemployment in our state has gone down to its lowest level in four years,” spokesman Rob Godfrey said in a statement. “Gov. Haley measures success by how many South Carolinians have jobs, not by how many unemployment offices we have.”

The state’s unemployment level hit a four-year low in November, mirroring a decline in the national unemployment rate.

Godfrey also highlighted the fact that the state has announced new jobs in 45 of 46 counties since Haley took office in January 2011, she has held charity events in rural counties through her foundation, and the administration has taken on other financial and health initiatives in rural counties.

The unemployment agency said the decision to end in-person unemployment assistance at the rural offices starting Feb. 15 was based on usage data and a reduction in federal funds.

Agency spokeswoman Adrienne Fairwell said the shift will move unemployment insurance services to higher-volume areas of the state. All of the offices that will no longer feature face-to-face help will continue to provide re-employment services and will have a room that people can use to electronically file an initial unemployment claim, she said.

Democrats said residents in rural counties often are the least technologically savvy and could have trouble filing online.

Fairwell said desk aides will be available to explain the most common types of forms. Unemployed residents can file online for initial and weekly claims. After being deemed eligible for the benefits, people can file weekly claims through a phone call. The unemployment agency’s resource shift means face-to-face unemployment assistance will now be offered at 39 offices statewide. Democrats representing rural areas said they were not consulted about the plan to end face-to-face assistance at many rural offices.

Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said the Haley administration should have rotated unemployment agency staff between the affected rural offices instead of ending face-to-face assistance altogether.

A look at S.C. office shifts for jobless benefits

The Department of Employment and Workforce is ending unemployment insurance services at 17 offices statewide. The following lists where the reassigned currently go for in-person help with their benefits, and where they’ll go starting Feb. 19. While clients are assigned to their nearest office, they can receive assistance at any of the soon-to-be 39 locations:

—Abbeville clients reassigned to Greenwood.

—Allendale to Barnwell.

—Bamberg to Orangeburg.

—Bishopville to Sumter.

—Chester to Lancaster.

—Chesterfield to Bennettsville.

—Dillon to Marion.

—Edgefield to Aiken.

—Hampton to Walterboro.

—Kingstree to Florence.

—Manning to Sumter.

—McCormick to Greenwood.

—Ridgeland to Beaufort.

—Saluda to Newberry.

—St. Matthews also to Orangeburg.

—Union to Spartanburg.

—Winnsboro to Columbia.

Source: Department of Employment and Workforce

Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.