The decision to close the unemployment office in Chester County and 16 other rural counties made little sense to begin with. News that the Department of Employment and Workforce recently has awarded 69 employees with raises totaling nearly $440,000 makes the move even more inexplicable.
The agency’s director Abraham Turner abruptly announced his retirement last week, saying he was leaving for personal reasons. He planned to leave on March 1.
While Turner said his departure has nothing to do with the decision to eliminate one-on-one services at the 17 agency offices, his resignation came a day after state senators demanded more information about the raises. Some state lawmakers also have criticized Gov. Nikki Haley for the closures, accusing her of callousness toward rural South Carolinians.
As of Friday, job seekers in Chester County no longer could talk face-to-face with an employee about unemployment benefits and other matters. They will either have to go online, call a toll-free number or, if they need to speak directly to an employee, drive to the unemployment office in Lancaster County, a round trip of more than 50 miles.
All of the 17 counties affected are poor and have high unemployment rates. Seven of them are among the 10 counties posting the highest jobless rates in the state.
State officials said the decision on which offices would close was based solely on “foot traffic.” Unfortunately those happen to be the offices in counties that need the most help.
Many of the unemployed in these rural areas, especially older residents, are likely to have trouble navigating an online program to get the answers they need regarding benefits. And many also are unlikely to have access to cars or public transportation – or be able to afford the gas to drive to the next county for one-on-one assistance.
It is even more galling that the cuts in services come at a time when 69 agency employees are receiving raises averaging nearly $6,400 apiece. While the DEW operates almost entirely on federal money, it delegates how much of the money is spent in operating the agency.
Rather than cutting personal service altogether at the 17 counties, agency officials could have arranged to have employees at those offices two days a week. A few employees could rotate among the county offices.
The agency said that a loss of federal funds was behind the office closings. But the drop in federal funding is largely the result of fewer unemployment claims now that the economy is picking up.
The agency has cut 130 positions since October. Thus, DEW is in the odd position of cutting services to poor counties and laying off employees while rewarding others with substantial raises.
Average benefits for the unemployed are just $239 a week. That’s not much, but it might be the only money keeping thousands of residents afloat while they look for another job.
Closing these rural offices makes it that much harder for them. It’s one more roadblock for people who have it hard already.
Closing those offices was both heartless and self-defeating. Maybe, if the poor had stronger champions in state government, it wouldn’t have happened.