Call center funding bill heading to Wolf

Legislation would help laid-off workers return to jobs until long-term deal struck

A bill that could temporarily return scores of laid-off Altoona unemployment call center employees to their jobs is set for Gov. Tom Wolf’s signature after easily clearing the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 250, which would pump enough money into the state unemployment call centers to let them reopen for a few months, cleared the Senate for the

second time Wednesday in a 41-8 vote.

Workers at the Altoona call center hope the bill could allow at least some of those laid off since December to return to their jobs.

“This buys them six, nine months to maybe get a long-term deal to hopefully get everyone back,” said Dann McDermott, a shop steward representing laid-off Service Employees International Union workers.

The roughly 120 Altoona workers have been jobless since before Christmas, when a bill to allow funding for technology upgrades at the call centers died in the Senate. Without the money for upgrades, the Wolf administration closed some of the call centers — a move Republicans attacked as a political stunt.

Negotiations have continued since then, with Republicans demanding tighter controls over the upgrade money.

Senate Bill 250, sponsored by Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, would allow enough time for lawmakers to negotiate a more permanent deal.

There is no guarantee the bill will return the Altoona employees to their jobs; several centers across the state took hits, with some expected to remain permanently closed. But McDermott said rumors are circulating that Altoona could get at least a large number of workers back.

“It’s still the big rumor mill that Harrisburg and Altoona will reopen,” he said. “They haven’t given us the full numbers.”

The Altoona center has an edge: It is one of few call centers owned by the state, meaning there was no lease to expire and complicate reopening.

The call center cuts have wreaked havoc on the state’s unemployment system. Laid-off workers in need of unemployment payments call a state hotline and get help from the call centers, but with the employee cuts, many have faced long hold times and frustrating in-person waits at job centers.

The Senate bill, which allocates $15 million for the unemployment system, also requires state Department of Labor and Industry officials to analyze call center performance data next time they try to close a location. The bill passed the Senate 39-8 last month, then passed the House 189-4 this week before a 41-8 Senate concurrence vote.

Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, who cosponsored the bill, voted in favor Wednesday. Rep. John D McGinnis, R-Altoona, and Rep. Judy Ward, R-Hollidaysburg, voted yes on Tuesday.

Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said the governor will sign the bill, although he stressed that a more permanent fix is still needed.

“The governor intends to sign this short-term fix,” Abbott said in a written statement. “However, if the General Assembly does not work to find a long-term solution, the system will be thrown back into chaos. Gov. Wolf and the administration will continue to work with the General Assembly to find a solution that stabilizes this vital system for workers and does not create constant crises for employees or those seeking unemployment.”