Harrisburg, PA, USA, January, 2017 -- With the 2017 session underway this week in Harrisburg, laid-off state unemployment workers are lobbying lawmakers to open the funds that would let them return to work.
Union workers spent the day at the state Capitol, meeting with senators in a bid to push through two bills to fund the call center system. State officials closed three of the centers — including one in Altoona — in December after their authorization to pull money from the state unemployment fund expired.
"People are getting desperate," said Dann McDermott, the Service Employees International Union shop steward representing the city’s call center workers.
The reduced workforce has placed heavy pressure on Pennsylvania’s unemployment system, with job-seekers filling regional career centers and clogging phone lines in search of help. Unemployed people in some cities have angrily surged into job centers; an Erie man was charged last week after he allegedly threatened to bomb a CareerLink office in his area.
Union workers have turned to the General Assembly for hope. Two new bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, aim to restore the lost call center funding.
In the lower chamber, House Bill 34 — submitted Monday to the House Labor and Industry Committee — would let the call centers take up to $57 million from the state’s unemployment fund for ongoing technology upgrades. Sponsored by Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Allentown, it is similar to a measure that easily passed late last year with bipartisan support.
Rep. John D McGinnis, R-Altoona, sits on the committee set to address the bill.
"I don’t think it’s going to be the vehicle to address the issue," said McGinnis, who has been newly assigned to the committee. McGinnis said he expects hearings and debates on the issue and remains "mildly optimistic that this is going to happen in a month."
For union members lobbying for the bills, the tougher sell may be in the Senate, where the funding proposal died without a vote at the end of last year’s session. Republican senators have been locked in a dispute with Gov. Tom Wolf, with Wolf accusing them of letting the funding die and GOP members claiming Wolf closed the centers to create political pressure.
McDermott said several Altoona union members met with Republican senators Tuesday, seeking their support for a similar funding plan titled Senate Bill 154.
"The senators weren’t giving us a yes or no. They’re sticking to their story: ‘We want to see what’s in the bill,'" McDermott said. "All we’re asking for is the funding to get the centers reopened … for these people who are unemployed to get the help they deserve."
Democrats in the upper chamber have openly pressed for the funding to be restored. Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, called the plan "our No. 1 priority in the Senate," according to the Pennsylvania Legislative Services.
In a post on his website, Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, pointed last week to fast-growing wait times for unemployed people seeking information as the call centers remain closed. Eichelberger, like his GOP colleagues, has laid the blame on Wolf’s administration.
"We used to be able to get them answers within 24 hours; after the governor closed three of the call centers, thousands of calls are stacking up," Eichelberger wrote. "The claimants going through a legislator’s office initially went from 24 hours to three days to receive help, then we were told it would take five to seven days, and today we were told seven to 10 days."
Those delays have created chaos at some private, state-affiliated CareerLink centers, where unemployed people can use special phones to directly seek advice and information.
Erie police charged 44-year-old James Italiani with terroristic threats after he allegedly threatened to bomb and fire on his local CareerLink office. Police said Italiani was angry about the lack of service he’d received from the center, according to Erie-based WJET-TV.
Those seeking help at the centers are now joined increasingly by call center workers themselves, McDermott said, especially with the phone system’s capacity reduced from 1,500 to 400 calls at a time.
"They’re struggling. Reality’s starting to set in for a lot of them," McDermott said of his coworkers. "We’re trying to find jobs now. It’s tough."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
Date Posted: Tuesday, January 31, 2017
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