Singing songs and carrying signs, 30 supporters of Allentown’s endangered state Office of Unemployment Compensation protested outside Sen. Pat Browne’s office Monday night.
Dressed in purple to match their union colors, members of SEIU Local 668 Chapter 13 shouted into the chilly evening in hopes of drawing attention to their cause. Barring a last minute intervention, about 600 workers in unemployment offices around the state, including 88 in Allentown, will lose their jobs Dec. 19 because of a lack of funding.
Michael Baker, chairman of the union local, described the workers as victims in a game of political brinksmanship. A bill, which would dedicate $57.5 million to improving technology and keeping employees, passed the House Oct. 19 in bipartisan fashion. The same measure stalled in the Senate as Republican leadership refused to put the matter up to a vote.
“When you don’t even have to vote on it, it’s a slap in the face to the union employees and the people who rely on these benefits,” Baker said.
State Sen. Scott Wagner, a potential challenger to Gov. Tom Wolf in the next gubernatorial campaign, has complained the funding fails to hold government accountable. A 2013 law granted the department $240 million over four years to boost staff levels and purchase new software. Wagner accused Wolf of failing to create more permanent solutions, and the Republican leadership blocked the vote at his urging, Baker said.
“This is another great example of abuse of taxpayer funds, lack of leadership from Gov. Wolf and his unwillingness to hold people accountable,” Wagner, who could not be reached Monday night, said on his website.
With the money not coming, Wolf opted to cut entire offices to balance the budget. The three offices cut are in the districts of powerful Senate Republicans including Browne, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Even with the megaphone they brought, the union members’ chants and songs couldn’t be heard through the stone walls of Browne’s office at the corner of Seventh and Hamilton streets. Staff there declined to comment on the protest outside.
Marylin Mercado, a claims examiner at the Allentown unemployment office, said the state will feel the repercussions even if lawmakers refuse to listen. The 600 employees about to be furloughed represent about 35 percent of the unemployment office’s staff.
Mercado, a member of the union’s state committee, said she knew there would be cuts if the Senate didn’t pass the bill, but she never anticipated entire branches being shut down.
The three locations are still operating, but they are clearing out their offices, not taking calls or reviewing claims. As a result, people calling about their unemployment status have seen their wait times skyrocket as there aren’t enough workers to handle the workload, Mercado said.
“This is not just an employee issue. This is a client issue. This is an everyone issue,” Mercado said.
The 2013 law led the call times to drop by over an hour, Baker said. Without its continuation, he expects it will revert back or grow even worse. Recent changes in state law will make 44,000 seasonal employees eligible for unemployment benefits if they can’t find work, he noted.