Closure of courthouse to result in furloughs

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County will furlough some employees, starting Monday, as it closes the courthouse to the general public in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Human Resources Director Katherine Swigart said Friday that it’s impossible to identify how many county employees, both union and non-union, will be furloughed under a developing operational plan.

Some efforts are to wrap up this weekend, Swigart said, with decisions identifying how many and which county employees are needed to handle departmental workloads that have diminished in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In those cases, Swigart said county employees expected to report to work on Monday will be notified by 10 p.m. Sunday.

Employees exempt from the furlough, Swigart said, are those who work in the 911 center, emergency management office, sheriff’s department, custodial department or in an office with state-mandated staffing requirements.

In addition, the county’s plan, as approved Friday by the commissioners, directs employees in court-related departments and departments supervised by elected officials to report to work on Monday while awaiting further instructions on their status.

This includes employees in the adult parole and probation office, controller’s office, coroner’s office, cost and fines office, court administration, district attorney’s office, domestic relations, juvenile probation, prothonotary, register/re­corder’s office and treasurer’s office.

Elected officials have authority, specified in the state’s county code, applicable to employees in those departments. But it is anticipated, based on the plan, that employees in those departments will see changes in duties and hours.

Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb, Laura Burke and Amy Webster voted in favor of the plan that Swigart said will be subject to change.

Erb said the action reflects the reduction in need of county services, because businesses and agencies closed this week in response to the coronavirus.

“Businesses that used our services in the past are no longer operating in the same way,” Erb said.

Many county offices are staffed to accommodate walk-in patrons and they’ve steadily declined.

Commissioner Laura Burke reported that the sheriff’s department estimates that about 650 people pass through the front door on a daily basis but as of Thursday, it was 157 and as of Friday, it was about 70.

Much of the decrease is reflected in the shutdown of the county court system to the general public, with only select proceedings being scheduled and conducted.

After Swigart’s review of the plan, Webster asked about the reason behind the delay of furloughs in court-related departments whose workload has dropped because attorneys and their clients aren’t coming into the courthouse.

She referenced domestic relations, prompting the department’s deputy, Megan Irwin, to report that the staff was busy this week rescheduling 120 support hearings.

In addition, the 3,500 cases handled by the department continue to generate inquiries, reports and requests.

“Our phone calls are off the charts right now,” Irwin said.

President Judge Elizabeth Doyle also responded to Webster’s question by referencing authority vested with elected officials to manage the employees in the departments they supervise.

“My belief was that in laying off many of the employees,” Webster said by e-mail after the meeting, “is that at least it keeps some of the folks from being exposed, hopefully.”

Swigart also reported that county employees who are furloughed will have options that including filing for unemployment compensation, the ability to redeem some or all accumulated benefit time, as many as 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave for full-time employees or a pro-rated amount for part-time employees, under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. They’ll also be eligible to be recalled.

In addition, the county intends to continue providing furloughed employees with health care, dental and vision insurance, at no cost to the employee, through April 30, Swigart said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.