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Wagner hits back against unemployment center layoffs

State Sen. Scott Wagner spoke at a press conference Monday regarding his support for cutting a source of funding to the state's unemployment compensation centers. - (Photo / Jennifer Wentz)

State Sen. Scott Wagner hit back Monday against critics who decried his support for not extending a source of funding to the state’s unemployment compensation centers.

More than 500 employees received layoff notices before Thanksgiving after Senate Republicans adjourned without voting on a bill that would have extended temporary funding to the eight centers. Three of those centers – in Lancaster, Allentown and Altoona – have announced they will close.

But Wagner believes the call centers may 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, Wagner said during a press conference Monday.

Wagner, a Republican who represents the 28th state senatorial district, described himself in media reports as having led Senate Republicans’ charge against allowing a vote on HB 2375. The bill would have provided $57.5 million to keep up temporary funding for the unemployment centers as a previously approved four-year funding stream came to an end.

Wagner and other Senate Republicans have argued the four-year funding was always intended to be temporary, with Wagner saying the Department of Labor and Industry failed to make the changes for which the funds were intended.

“The bottom line is the governor held a gun to our heads and gave us an ultimatum and said, ‘Either you fund the call centers, or we’ll close them,'” Wagner said. “Unfortunately, I’m one of those guys, don’t give me an ultimatum.”

Other Senate Republicans have echoed that sentiment, saying Wolf could have found ways to keep the centers open.

Wolf, however, said Republicans had assured his office since April that HB 2375 would see a vote. That funding, he said, was necessary to prevent the layoffs, which hit right before the holidays, as well as prevent a backlog of calls to the remaining unemployment centers.

“Every single unemployment insurance payment that is delayed and call that is not answered is unfortunately due to the lack of action by Sen. Wagner and others who failed to pass this bill before the legislature broke for the holidays despite clear warnings of layoffs from the department if they neglected to vote on the funding,” Wolf’s office said in a statement Monday.

Representatives from the Department of Labor and Industry were not immediately available for further comment Monday afternoon.

Wagner vowed a full investigation Monday into the circumstances surrounding the call-center closings. Citing a visit Friday to the soon-to-close Lancaster center, he said he heard the Lancaster center had been slated to close later in 2017 anyway. He also alleged that the Altoona call center was one of the most productive and efficient centers in the state.

Wolf has said the state chose which centers to close based on variables such as efficiency and ability to handle increased call volume. A spokesman for his office also denied Wagner’s claim that the Lancaster center was slated to close in 2017.

“Gov. Wolf is a failed governor that is seeking to salvage his political career and is using the livelihood of state employees as a pawn to do so,” Wagner said Monday.

Others have accused Wagner of using the same tactic in his opposition of letting the funding bill go to a vote.

“Two weeks ago, Sen. Wagner bragged about forcing the call centers to close by preventing the final vote on the funding in the Senate despite overwhelming, bipartisan support in the House. Now he is trying to absolve himself of all responsibility. This is pure hypocrisy,” Wolf’s office said.

Wagner said he has filed a Right-to-Know request for more information regarding the closings.

Some Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have said they would be willing to look at call-center funding again in January after they have had more time to examine the centers’ operations.

Jennifer Wentz
Jennifer Wentz covers Lancaster County, York County, financial services, taxation and legal services. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at [email protected].

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