After layoff announcements, lawmakers seek audit of state unemployment centers

Jennifer Wentz//December 8, 2016

After layoff announcements, lawmakers seek audit of state unemployment centers

Jennifer Wentz//December 8, 2016

Three Pennsylvania legislators – Sen. Lisa Baker, Sen. David Argall and Rep. Jerry Knowles – have sent letters to Auditor General Eugene DePasquale over the past several weeks, asking him to look into how the centers used money given to them over the past four years.

DePasquale acknowledged the requests in a statement Wednesday.

“I have received several requests for audits on this issue and I am taking all of them seriously,” he said. “I will be meeting with all of the interested parties in the coming weeks so I can come up with a solid plan for how I can help.”

He plans to announce a decision on the audit requests in January.

The requests include a letter from Baker, whose district covers five counties around the Wilkes-Barre area, and a joint letter from Argall and Knowles, who represent parts of the Berks-Schuylkill area. The lawmakers are asking DePasquale to do a thorough audit on the controversial Service and Infrastructure Improvement Fund, to which the state transferred $178.4 million between 2013 and the end of 2016.

These kinds of requests from lawmakers to look into how funds were used are not unusual, said Barry Ciccocioppo, communications director for DePasquale’s office.

Legislators intended the fund to serve as a temporary stream to help the Department of Labor and Industry to replace its 40-year-old technology and make other changes to increase efficiency at the unemployment compensation centers.

The funds helped the eight centers reduce wait times by more than an hour in the past two years and helped it meet goals set by the federal Department of Labor that it had previously fallen short of, the department said in a news release last month.

The department requested additional funds – $57.5 million – for the coming year to keep up system improvements in the midst of decreased federal funding.

Senate Republicans decided last month, however, not to bring the funding to a vote, with some lawmakers saying they needed more information about how the department used the Service and Infrastructure Improvement funds. Others said they felt the department should have figured out a way to wean itself off the funds over the past four years.

“Without the $57.5 million in funding, there is simply not enough money to pay staff,” Labor & Industry Secretary Kathy Manderino said after the Senate failed to bring the funding to a vote. “The department has made great strides in efficiency and now, due to the Senate’s lack of action, those strides – and service to our state’s unemployed – have been jeopardized.”

In addition to issuing more than 500 layoff notices, the department is closing three of the state’s eight unemployment compensation centers.

Several Republican state lawmakers have publicly rallied against providing the new funds, drawing accusations of playing politics with state employees’ livelihoods. Wagner, who represents parts of York County, held a press conference Monday about the unemployment centers’ operations, saying he has filed a Right-To-Know request seeking more information about how the department used the money it received over the past four years.

He also alleged that at least one of the call centers might have been on the chopping block regardless of funding – a claim Gov. Tom Wolf’s office has denied – and the closings were a pre-emptive move by Wolf to shift blame for the closings.

SEIU 668, the union representing the unemployment center’s workers, hit back against Wagner’s comments in a statement issued earlier this week.

“What the public should understand is that he killed a vote on a bill that not only would have kept these members in their jobs, but would have required the Auditor-General to audit how money was spent from 2013 until now – for accountability and transparency,” SEIU 668 President Tom Herman said.