Andrew Dys

Chester residents, officials livid over closure of unemployment office

No bureaucrat, no politician stood outside the Chester County unemployment office Tuesday.

But the people of Chester who use that office to get the benefits each earned talked of Gov. Nikki Haley’s plan to close the office as a sucker punch to the gut.

Chester’s residents and local officials are plainly upset and angry.

“This is past ridiculous; this is stupid,” said Chester’s Tawrence James, 39, who was recently laid off from his job in Rock Hill. “It is sickening. It doesn’t make any sense at all, and the state of South Carolina is punishing the very people here in Chester who need the services.”

The decision shows the war between the working class and the politicians in Columbia and Washington, James said.

“We have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we have people here struggling to survive,” James said. “The Constitution says, ‘We the people,’ not ‘Them people.’ But we are being treated like we didn’t work or earn anything in our lives.”

Chester has about 13 percent unemployment – seventh-worst in the state. The Chester office, at 764 Wilson Street Extension, is among 17 of 56 state Department of Employment and Workforce offices where benefits services will no longer be offered.

Most of them are in the poorest counties that already have the highest unemployment.

Of the 10 counties where unemployment is highest, seven will lose their local unemployment offices. Ten of the top fifteen counties with the highest unemployment will lose their unemployment offices.

The SC Works career center – which offers job seekers and businesses access to employment and training opportunities – will remain at the Wilson Street office.

The decision to close the Chester office infuriated Chester County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey. He has already begun calling state officials and Chester’s legislators to see if the decision can be undone.

“These offices are supposed to help people who are out of work, help keep hungry children from starving, and the state just stuck a pitchfork in every one of them in Chester County,” Roddey said Tuesday. “Chester County has had some of the highest unemployment, but it’s not because people don’t want to work.

“Chester people are hard-working people. They deserve an office here. The state just kicked a whole county when it’s down, a swift one right in the head as we are layin’ on the ground.”

State Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Winnsboro, who represents most of Chester County, was apoplectic that the decision was made to close the unemployment offices in Chester and Winnsboro while state officials are asking for more money in administrative costs.

“This is plain wrong,” Coleman said. “Of the 17 counties affected, all are rural and all have high unemployment. How can closing these offices help the people that the unemployment offices are designed to help?

“This is anti-unemployed; it hurts those people. I am upset and the people of Chester County have every right to be mad about this.”

Although some politicians in the state from counties affected by closings maintained that the cuts are aimed at counties with high black populations, Coleman sees them as anti-poor and anti-working-class.

Coleman and other Democrats from affected counties are working to see if the bell can be “unrung.”

“The people of this state have to voice their displeasure on this if they want these offices that serve people to remain open,” Coleman said.

Almost all people angered by the announced closings talked of the cost of driving 50, 60 or 70 miles roundtrip to Lancaster County for services.

Officials with the Department of Employment and Workforce, a cabinet agency that reports directly to the governor, said the move is needed because federal money is being slashed that pays for unemployment offices.

Chester residents can either get services online or drive to Lancaster for in-person help.

State officials said they chose which offices to close based on foot traffic; the least foot traffic got the boot.

“The people of Chester again get nothing from this state,” said Marquita Brown of Chester. “What happens if somebody doesn’t have a computer or a car? They are stuck.”

Azzie Feaster, 50, said her job went away, she has no computer and she has no car.

“It is like now I don’t matter to anybody,” Feaster said.

Compared to the rest of South Carolina, and especially the country, Chester County is already in rough shape despite its rich textile history and hard-working ethos.

The textile mills that employed thousands closed in Chester and Richburg and Fort Lawn, as did those in Rock Hill and Lancaster. Many in Chester already drive 80 to 100 miles a day round-trip to work in Columbia or Charlotte.

Unemployment in Chester is a third higher than the national average. Chester’s average family income is about $32,000; $20,000 less than the national average. One in four people in Chester lives in poverty.

And now this.

“This state is making it so hard on people who are down and out, trying for work in their field, and just trying to get the benefits that people worked to get,” said Paul Tant, a health care worker looking for a permanent job. “People want to work, but our governor Nikki Haley is working on being a one-term governor, because this stinks.”

Chester’s SC Works officials declined comment Tuesday. The decision to slash the access to unemployment benefits services for hundreds, maybe thousands of people, came at the state level.

Outside the Chester unemployment office, people coming in for help with benefits streamed out in anger after being told the closing is coming Feb. 15.

“Lancaster is $15, $20 in gas, round trip,” said Cedric Suber of Chester. “I got laid off and went back to school. Nobody has money for that gas. People don’t care about us in Chester. This is ridiculous.”

Other unemployed people seeking benefits or at the office for recertification or to prove they had looked for work to keep getting benefits were outraged at the prospect of traveling to Lancaster for help.

“This isn’t just stupid, it is crazy,” said Viola Jones, a jobseeker. “You are here in Chester and you are unemployed, why would you go to Lancaster where there are no jobs?”

Rodney Brown was laid off from his job at a paper company. He has six children. Unemployment benefits are the difference between his children and hunger.

“Taking this office is a terrible decision,” Brown said.

Life is so hard in Chester County that closing the office can only make it worse for the very people who need help finding meaningful work, said another woman seeking unemployment benefits, Tennisha Douglas.

“Again, they have done Chester wrong,” she said.