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Pa. call centers in a battle that could affect race for governor

HARRISBURG - A week before Christmas, more than 500 state workers at call centers for the unemployed will themselves lose their jobs.

State Sen. Scott Wagner.
State Sen. Scott Wagner.Read more(Michael Pronzato / Staff Photographer)

HARRISBURG - A week before Christmas, more than 500 state workers at call centers for the unemployed will themselves lose their jobs.

On that much, everyone is grudgingly resigned.

Beyond that - from who's to blame to why it's happening and whether it can be prevented - is a matter of dispute that appears to have become swept up in the politics of the 2018 race for governor.

Gov. Wolf's administration sent the employees notices of their impending layoff late last month, after the Republican-controlled Senate closed its two-year session without voting on a bill that would have authorized $57 million to keep the centers running.

The vote was blocked at the eleventh hour after a push by Sen. Scott Wagner, the deep-pocketed and fiscally conservative Republican from York who has openly declared his intent to challenge Wolf in 2018.

At the time, Wagner said there were too many questions about whether the money was being spent efficiently.

Since then, the escalating war of words between the Democratic governor's administration and Senate Republicans has resulted in near-daily verbal attacks - but no action - as a Dec. 19 deadline nears for the layoffs at three of the unemployment call centers.

"Our folks are being held hostage," Tom Herman, president of Local 668 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents the workers, said in an interview late last week. "This is simply a political game."

In all, 521 workers for the Department of Labor & Industry - many at call centers in Allentown, Lancaster, and Altoona that help process unemployment claims - are slated to be laid off.

The centers were funded under a 2013 bill crafted to respond to criticism from federal authorities that Pennsylvania's cumbersome unemployment compensation system was crippled by inefficiencies and embarrassingly long wait times.

That bill, signed by then-Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, created a four-year, supplemental revenue stream to help improve the unemployment compensation pipeline, including its computer system.

This year, the GOP-controlled House approved a bill for the roughly $57.5 million needed to keep them running, but the Senate balked when it reconvened for the last time before its two-year session ended Nov. 30.

In doing so, Wolf aides charged, the chamber's GOP leaders reneged on a promise to vote on the measure, an act they derided as kowtowing to Wagner and his sway over the chamber's ever-growing conservative bloc.

Labor & Industry Secretary Kathy Manderino called the Senate's failure to act "disgraceful." Other Democrats warned that the unemployed can now again expect busy signals and interminable hold times.

The administration insists that there is no other way, and no other pot of money, to prevent the layoffs. They insist the executive branch does not have authority to divert money from one pot to another without legislative approval.

Wagner has pushed back hard.

Described alternately by foes and fans as bombastic and bare-knuckled or pragmatic and effective, the self-made millionaire businessman has said he and others had a slew of questions about whether the tens of millions of dollars spent to date have improved the system.

He's filed Right-to-Know requests and demanded accountability - although the bill the Senate let die included auditing provisions - and lashed out at Wolf for shuttering the three call centers that happened to be in Republican districts.

"Gov. Wolf and the public-sector unions that he panders to are spreading misinformation," Wagner said this month at a news conference in the Capitol, predicting that the issue will soon be known as "Callcenter-gate."

The Republican senator has not offered an alternative plan to keep the centers running or signaled if he is open to one.

Longtime political analyst and pollster G. Terry Madonna said he believed the call-center layoffs could be avoided if the two sides laid down their political arms.

"This has become the opening salvo in the 2018 governor's race," Madonna said. "It illustrates how contentious the race is going to be, and how difficult it is going to be for the governor to get his priorities next year."

For Penny Erney, that explanation is just not good enough.

The soon-to-be laid-off unemployment compensation examiner from State College is single and battling cervical cancer.

Though she has a supportive family, she worries about paying bills and maintaining her home. At 61, she knows it will be difficult to find a new job.

She called the work she and her coworkers do necessary and bristled at the suggestion that the system is inefficient or wasteful.

And she said it made her furious to hear Wagner suggest last week that she and her colleagues would be eligible for temporarily continuing their health coverage under COBRA, an expensive proposition under the best of circumstances.

"That is so far removed from the reality of what people in my position face," she said late last week in a telephone interview while receiving chemotherapy. She said she wanted to challenge "anyone who has a conscious to step up and do the right thing."

"I want them to look at our lives and say, 'Let's do the right thing,' " she said. "I guess I'm looking for a miracle. That's what I want for Christmas."

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