COLUMBIA, SC — Lawmakers began getting answers Wednesday to a list of questions for the Department of Employment and Workforce and pledged temporary oversight of the department’s new plan to streamline services for federal unemployment benefit recipients.
That plan, which eliminates in-person unemployment services in 17 DEW offices across the state beginning Feb. 19, has been hotly debated since its announcement Tuesday.
Members of the Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry subcommittee joined the debate Wednesday in a meeting previously scheduled to hear DEW updates and a progress report since last year.
DEW representatives fielded questions from the Senate panel, walking them through proposed changes brought on by improved employment prospects in the state and declining unemployment in most of the state, though jobless rates remain chronically high primarily in rural areas.
“My concern about this change is how it affects rural South Carolina,” said Sen. Kent Williams, D-Marion.
“Seems like when we start restructuring and making cuts, it always seems to be in the rural counties on the backs of the rural people; the ones that already are burdened the most,” he told DEW.
Williams, who represents Dillon, Florence, Marion and Marlboro counties, said that in Dillon County, for example, 12 percent of the households have no cars and 3 percent have no telephone service.
“Can you believe that?” he asked.
On Tuesday, a group of Democrats scolded Gov. Nikki Haley for the cutbacks, which also include staff reductions in some of the local unemployment offices, though no offices will close as a result of the cuts.
The department said decreased federal funds are the cause of the consolidation of in-person unemployment services at fewer S.C. offices, driven by lower unemployment.
“The unemployment has come down in South Carolina, which is a great thing, and the number of unemployed people has come down,” said Erica Von Nessen, the department’s unemployment insurance assistant executive director.
“We are looking at reducing staff and also reducing services in some (areas) that have lower foot traffic.” Claim loads in those areas did not justify existing staff levels, she said.
Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said the DEW changes will affect services in three of the counties he represents, including McCormick, Edgefield and Saluda.
“Generally speaking, I’m not at all opposed to this plan,” Massey said. “I believe in the concept and I wanted to express my support, but also, it’s gotta work, because we can’t leave people out in the cold.
“They’re going to implement it, and I say give them 90 days … and then let’s come back and see how it’s working.”
Department officials delivered a 78-page report to the subcommittee on Wednesday and were told the full Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry committee wants to hear the update when they meet next week.
Among the highlights:
• The department is on schedule to pay back by 2015 nearly $1 billion it borrowed from the federal government between 2008 to 2011 in order to pay unemployment benefits to S.C. residents
• Unemployment tax rates in S.C. are lower in 2013 than in 2012, ranging from $11.40 per worker to $942.60 per worker
• The department is devising regulations to define unemployment benefits paid for dismissal from work “for cause,” as opposed to other misconduct. The state ranked in fourth place the past three years for unemployment benefits over-payments, Von Nessen said. But a new integrity department has been created at the department to boost efficiency across a number of areas.