COLUMBIA, SC — S.C. Democratic leaders said Tuesday that Gov. Nikki Haley has declared war on the poor and African-Americans by cutting off in-person unemployment claims help at 17 rural offices statewide.
“These are the most vulnerable of counties,” Minority House Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, told reporters outside the governor’s office.
Staff cuts at the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce are occurring in 13 of 21 counties with the state’s worst unemployment rates in December.
A dozen of the 17 offices losing workers are located in counties with majority African-American populations.
“It is clearly war on the African-American community,” state Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, said at the news event. “It is war on the rural community.”
Haley’s office said she supports rural South Carolinians, including her efforts that have won jobs in all but one of the state’s counties and her personal foundation that has held health and education clinics. The employment office in Bamberg County, where Haley grew up, is among those losing in-person jobless benefits help. The agency is part of her cabinet.
“Governor Haley has a war on unemployment,” Haley’s spokesman Rob Godfrey said. “Governor Haley measures success by how many South Carolinians have jobs, not by how many unemployment offices we have."
People seeking aid have other ways to get help besides visiting an employment office. They can apply online and can use computers at offices losing in-person benefits staff, the agency said.
Still, Democrats said some people will want to speak with a person about benefits and questioned why employment agency staffers couldn’t split time between offices during a week.
Forcing people who might not have a car or gas money to drive to offices in nearby counties will lower the number of people filing jobless claims, state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said.
In turn, that could lower the unemployment rate – a potential boon for Haley, a first-term Republican, he said. The state’s jobless rate has slid from 10.6 percent to 8.4 percent in Haley’s two years in office, falling about the same as the national rate in that time.
“It’s clear the governor is running for re-election,” Hutto said.
The 2014 governor’s race was hard to miss Tuesday, with state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Kershaw Democrat who lost to Haley in 2010 and is expected to challenge her again, also attending the news event. Staffers from Haley’s office watched his interviews with reporters about the job cuts.
“It shows the agency is very out of touch with what is going on in South Carolina,” Sheheen said. “We should be focusing on having people on the frontlines of these agencies out there where real people live, instead of having a bloated administrative office.”
Just before the Democrats spoke, Haley told reporters that staffing was reduced as claims and federal funding have dropped.
“It’s a good thing when you downsize government,” she said.
The S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce said Monday it will consolidate claims work at 17 rural offices beginning Feb. 19. The offices losing in-person claims help will continue giving other services, such as assistance with job searches.
The offices losing workers take 7 percent of monthly initial claims in the state, the employment agency said. The Bamberg office averaged three initial benefits claims a month.
The staffing changes affect about 6,000 of the 60,000 South Carolinians receiving any type of assistance from the agency, including weekly checks, the department said.
Godfrey would not say if Haley spoke with employment agency officials about the decision to cut staff, but he said she stands by their decision.
The state’s employment agency has laid off 130 workers – about 12 percent of its staff – since October.
The department is working to become more efficient as it pays off $675 million remaining in loans from the federal government to cover the spike in jobless benefits from the economic downturn. The agency said it hopes to repay the loan by 2015.