COLUMBIA — A state legislator insisted Wednesday that a clause in the House budget plan forces South Carolina’s unemployment agency to resume providing in-person help with unemployment benefits in 17 rural offices. But the governor’s office is adamant that it does no such thing.
Democratic Rep. Ted Vick said his amendment would require the Department of Employment and Workforce to restore face-to-face help with unemployment benefits. State offices where those services were cut Feb. 15 include Vick’s home county of Chesterfield.
“It makes it less convenient and more burdensome for folks to sign up” for benefits, Vick said.
His proposal became part of the budget plan Tuesday after a motion to kill it failed 42-66.
But a spokesman for Republican Gov. Nikki Haley said the paragraph actually does nothing, other than give the Cabinet agency flexibility it already used in deciding how to reallocate diminishing federal dollars.
“Earlier this year DEW used the very flexibility the House just reinforced to make sure those dollars were touching as many unemployed South Carolinians as possible,” said Rob Godfrey, spokesman for Haley.
At issue is the agency’s consolidation of in-person unemployment services from 56 to 39 offices statewide.
Vick maintains his amendment reopens the offices, though they never closed. Employees remain at the offices for job-seeking services, and computers are available there to access services online.
But legislators, particularly Democrats, denounced the move as an attack on rural South Carolina, where they contend many residents lack the computer skills needed to fill out forms online. Once an initial claim is filed, clients can get help through a toll-free number. But critics say that doesn’t help workers just laid off, who now need to drive to an office in an adjoining county for personal assistance and may have transportation issues.
Legislative outrage culminated in the resignation of the agency’s director, Abraham Turner.
According to the agency, 98 percent of claims statewide already are filed online. The cuts come as other states move those services completely online. Agency officials say foot traffic dictated where they cut the help.
Vick said he just doesn’t believe the agency’s statistics.
They “dismantled these 17 rural offices,” Vick said, calling it a malicious decision in counties where voters lean Democratic.
The agency and governor’s office contend it’s simply a matter of declining federal dollars. They also cite the drop in the state’s unemployment rate.
The agency operates almost entirely on federal funds, with the exception of $300,000 for a program required by state law. Since 2010, the federal government has decreased what it sends the state for administrative costs by $15 million, said agency spokeswoman Adrienne Fairwell.
“When we take the ability to manage an agency out of the director’s hands, we hurt the agency,” said Labor Commerce and Industry Chairman Bill Sandifer, R-Seneca, who made the unsuccessful motion to kill Vick’s amendment.
The agency has cut 130 jobs since October, including eight jobs in those 17 offices. Only seven of the 17 provided the face-to-face help five days a week.
Vick wants the agency not only to restore but expand what was offered.
His proposal was a two-step process. On Monday, legislators agreed to put $1.5 million from the agency’s administrative budget on a separate line. The clause added Tuesday directs the agency to spend up to $1.5 million to provide functioning unemployment insurance services centers for the counties affected by the regionalization. But an interpretation of its practical effect is that the agency can spend anywhere from zero to $1.5 million on providing services in the manner it deems fit.
“Nothing in the proviso removes the agency’s ability to deliver unemployment services in the most efficient manner across the state, and the agency is working with local Work Force Investment Boards to do just that,” Godfrey said.
The $1.5 million would come out of more than $4 million the agency set aside to pay its part next year of computer upgrades being developed as part a four-state consortium that includes North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. The three-year effort is to replace the agency’s 30-year-old insurance benefits system.
Vick suggested the agency ask the Senate for that money as that chamber crafts its budget plan.