January 23, 2017 – By David Weissman
The fight to provide funding to reverse layoffs in the state Department of Labor and Industry continued Monday in the Capitol building, where the focus of the unions was on a familiar opponent.
The department furloughed 521 employees late last year after a bill to provide an additional $57.5 million for unemployment compensation services was held up in the state Senate.
The state’s unemployment compensation program, which also closed three centers, has suffered as a result, with wait times for calls into the centers drastically increasing.
Led by Service Employees International Union 668, which represents many of the furloughed workers, about 100 people traveled from the Capitol Rotunda steps to Sen. Scott Wagner’s office shouting, “If we don’t get no justice, you don’t get no peace!”
Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, has said he took the lead in preventing a vote on the bill at the end of last session because the department didn’t provide enough information. He has served as the center of criticism from Democrats and union workers since those comments with multiple rallies held outside his York County office.
Several attendees of the rally made their way into Wagner’s office briefly before security officials told them they needed to leave.
Holding signs including “Sen. Wagner = Politics at its Worst!” and “I’m tired of Wagner’s baloney!,” they continued to make noise in the hallway outside his office for several minutes before dispersing for lunch with plans to visit other legislators throughout the day.
Jason High, Wagner’s chief of staff, said Wagner told the workers he’d be happy to meet with them if they scheduled an appointment, but because they chose to scream and yell, he had them removed from his office.
The former state workers already had shows of support from numerous legislators, including Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, at their initial rally. Senate Minority Floor Leader Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny County, said this issue is his highest priority.
The bill proposed last session had passed through the House with major bipartisan support, 175-13. Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh County, has proposed similar legislation for this session.
High said Wagner is not interested in voting on any bill for increased funding to the department until officials can show him exactly how much they want, for how long and how it will be used.
“If the governor’s position is that (the department) will need this money forever, tell us,” he said. “We’re willing to have that conversation.”
High acknowledged that it could be difficult for the department to know its future needs because of varying federal funds, but he said Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration needed to begin this conversation with the General Assembly during budget appropriations meetings in February.