COLUMBIA — The director of South Carolina’s employment agency resigned Friday after two weeks of criticism from legislators about the ending of one-on-one help in Chester County and at other rural offices.
Department of Employment and Workforce Director Abraham Turner handed his resignation in to Gov. Nikki Haley, saying he is leaving for personal reasons, effective March 1, unless the Republican governor changes that date.
“I thank you for the opportunity to serve the citizens and businesses of our great state in this capacity and will forever be grateful for the opportunity to help put South Carolinians back to work,” Turner wrote in a two-paragraph letter provided to The Associated Press.
His resignation comes a day after senators demanded answers for why the agency, since August, has given 69 employees raises totaling nearly $440,000 but is cutting one-on-one help for people seeking benefits in 17 rural offices statewide. That in-person help ends Friday, though the offices will remain open for job-seeking services, and computers will remain available for accessing benefits services online.
Last week, Democratic legislators held a news conference to protest the plan, accusing Haley of not caring about rural South Carolina. She called the charge ridiculous and stood by the agency’s decision.
DEW officials tried to assure senators Thursday that staff will be at the offices to answer questions, and a video will provide directions for filling out forms online. In five of those 17 offices, an employee will hold workshops one day a week for a transitional time, said Erica Von Nessen, the agency’s director of unemployment insurance.
Statewide, 98 percent of initial claims are filed online, she said.
But legislators complained that many rural residents are not computer-savvy and shouldn’t have to drive to another county for one-on-one assistance when transportation is often a problem.
The agency also cut 75 positions, eight of those from the 17 rural offices – 10 of which held part-time operation hours. That’s in addition to 55 jobs cut last October. The agency, with 997 employees, said layoffs were due to a $15 million reduction in federal money for administration as fewer people seek unemployment benefits. Agency operations are almost entirely federally funded.
But the explanations didn’t comfort some senators.
“What they’re doing is inconsistent, to cut services in rural areas and cut positions, and at the same time raising salaries substantially,” said Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia, who brought up the raises in Thursday’s Senate committee meeting.
The jobs eliminated in rural offices cut roughly $400,000 from the agency’s budget, Von Nessen said.
“Why couldn’t they have used that money to keep people in rural counties?” asked Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Winnsboro, whose district includes Chester County.
In a statement, the agency said it needed to provide raises to attract and retain qualified workers amid organizational restructuring and added responsibilities. The average salary for a full-time worker at DEW is $500 less than the average salary for all state agencies, at $38,100, according to DEW.
Senators also criticized what they called lavish, taxpayer-funded trips.
During Turner’s tenure, the agency has held four three-day conferences in Myrtle Beach, Pawleys Island and North Charleston, costing a combined $194,300. All were funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s veterans affairs program, which gives DEW $100,000 yearly and specifies that it be used for training and incentives, said DEW spokeswoman Adrienne Fairwell, who provided a detailed summary.
Sen. Kevin Bryant, a long-standing critic of the agency, said the explanation didn’t change his mind.
“It’s still a waste,” said Bryant, R-Anderson.
The agency’s former director, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. John Finan, will return on his second interim basis, said Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey.
Haley picked Turner, the former commanding officer of Fort Jackson, to lead DEW in May 2011.