In November, the Wolf administration announced that they would be laying off 600 employees from unemployment call centers across the state. The official line is that the layoffs were due to the Senate’s failure to pass legislation funding the call centers. On the surface that explanation makes sense. However, it becomes less likely when you consider that the Governor had redirected billions of dollars in state funding during the extended budget process in 2015. It is also an odd "coincidence" that four of the seven call centers selected for closure were in Republican Senatorial Districts.
When that coincidence was pointed out to the Department of Labor and Industry, their spokeswoman flatly denied that politics played any role in the selection process. According to the Patriot-News, Governor Wolf stated that the closure decisions were ""based on a series of variables, including performance, capacity, efficiency, and ability of the centers to handle increased call volume." Now information has come out refuting those claims as well.
Last Friday, Senator John Eichelberger and Senator Scott Wagner visited the Altoona Call Center. He had some interesting thoughts on the visit:
"The Altoona Center is rated as the most efficient center with the lowest cost per call, they are the only office trained to handle a federal displaced workers program, and their building is one of two owned by the Commonwealth; the remainder of the Call Center buildings are leased. Most businesses would not close their most productive office, nor would they shut down an operation in a building they’re stuck with instead of closing one where they can get out of a lease. Some of the employees feel that after the layoff, claim filing will become severely backed up and take out their anger on state legislators. The real question is whether or not that is the strategy of the Wolf administration. If their plan is to inflict enough pain on people who just lost their jobs simply to leverage the House and Senate, that smacks of the "Bridgegate" charges in New Jersey." (Emphasis added)
The New Jersey Bridgegate scandal involved Governor Christie’s staff closing lanes of a local bridge to punish his political opponents. Considering how much heartburn some Republicans in the General Assembly are causing Governor Wolf, there are certainly some interesting parallels to the closure of the call centers and the Bridgegate Scandal in New Jersey. Senator Wagner and the Senate have submitted right-to-know requests for communications related to the closures and we’ll be curious to see what they find.