Statehouse Democrats slammed Gov. Nikki Haley after one of her Cabinet agencies announced it would no longer have a staffer on-hand to help people with their unemployment benefits in many of the state’s rural counties.
The state Department of Employment and Workforce (SCDEW) on Monday announced it would no longer offer unemployment insurance help at 17 of its 56 offices around the state. An SCDEW spokeswoman said the move was due to a decrease in federal funding. Instead, agency officials encouraged recipients to seek help online or by phone or traveling to an office in another county.
But Democrats criticized the move Tuesday, with some even going so far as to claim the governor was fighting a “war on rural South Carolina,” according to Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg), “You look at where these 17 offices are… these are people who may not have a car and certainly don’t have the gas money to drive the extra mileage to be able to file for unemployment benefits.”
He claimed the move was a political calculation by the governor, since he believed it would lead to fewer people filing for jobless claims.
But Haley’s office immediately fired back against the idea that the governor was attacking rural South Carolina, “Governor Haley has a war on unemployment. That’s why our economy is roaring back and unemployment in our state has gone done to its lowest level in four years,” her spokesman Rob Godfrey said in a statement, “Gov. Haley measures success by how many South Carolinians have jobs, not by how many unemployment offices we have.”
SCDEW also announced Monday that it was eliminating 75 positions due to the loss of federal funds. That amounts to a total of 130 positions ended at the agency since October, which is largely due to federals funds disappearing now that the state is no longer considered to be in a severely high state of unemployment.
“This was the Feds that reduced revenues to us,” Haley said Tuesday, “It is the good part of business to turn around and say we have to respond to that and be efficient and make sure that we do that.” There are about 6,000 South Carolinians who currently receive jobless benefits and live in the affected areas, according to her office.
Rep. Mike Anthony’s (D-Union) home county was one of those affected, as SCDEW announced the closest in-person help would now be in its Spartanburg offices. “It concerns me that this agency is going to ask for a 59 percent increase in the “Administration” part of SCDEW and at the same time lay off people,” he said.
Agency officials said the apparent increase in funding for “Administration” is only a budgetary technicality used to request replacement of a 30-year-old computer system. A spokeswoman said the agency is actually liquidating its federal cash reserves to pay for an upgrade of the system. She said no additional funding was requested for positions or salaries.
Other legislators were upset that SCDEW never approached them about possibly easing the impact caused by the lost federal funds. State Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Columbia) said he thought the General Assembly would have been willing to come up with a plan to keep the offices running fully-staffed. SCDEW actually receives very little from the state’s General Fund and is mostly funded through unemployment taxes and federal money.
All of the affected SCDEW branches are “satellite offices” that are open no more than three days each week.