COLUMBIA — The director of South Carolina's unemployment agency resigned Friday, following two weeks of criticism from legislators about the ending of one-on-one help at rural offices.
Department of Employment and Workforce Director Abraham Turner handed his resignation to Gov. Nikki Haley, saying he is leaving for personal reasons, effective March 1, unless the Republican governor decides to change that date.
“I thank you for the opportunity to serve the citizens and businesses of our great state in this capacity and will forever be grateful for the opportunity to help put South Carolinians back to work,” Turner wrote in a hand-scrawled, two-paragraph letter provided to The Associated Press.
His resignation comes a day after senators demanded answers for why the agency, since August, has given 69 employees raises totaling nearly $440,000 but is cutting one-on-one help for people seeking benefits in 17 rural offices statewide. That in-person help ends Friday, though the offices will remain open for job-seeking services, and computers will remain available for accessing benefits services online.
Last week, Democratic legislators held a news conference to protest the plan, accusing Haley of not caring about rural South Carolina. She called the charge ridiculous and last week stood by the agency's decision.
DEW officials tried to assure senators Thursday that staff will still be at the offices to answer questions, and a video will provide directions for filling out forms online. In five of those 17 offices, an employee will hold workshops one day a week for a transitional time, said Erica Von Nessen, the agency's director of unemployment insurance.
Statewide, 98 percent of initial claims already are filed online, she said.
But several legislators complained that many rural residents are not computer savvy and shouldn't have to drive to another county for one-on-one assistance, especially when transportation is often a problem.
The agency also cut 75 positions, eight of those from the 17 rural offices – 10 of which already held part-time operation hours. That's in addition to 55 jobs cut last October. The agency, now at 997 employees, said the layoffs were due to a $15 million reduction in federal money for administration as fewer people seek unemployment benefits. Agency operations are almost entirely federally funded.
But the explanations didn't comfort some senators.
“What they're doing is inconsistent, to cut services in rural areas and cut positions, and at the same time raising salaries substantially,” said Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia, who brought up the raises in Thursday's Senate committee meeting.
The eight jobs eliminated in rural offices cut roughly $400,000 from the agency's budget, Von Nessen said.
“Why couldn't they have used that money to keep people in rural counties?” asked Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Winnsboro.
In a statement, the agency said it needed to provide raises to attract and retain qualified workers, amid a time of organizational restructuring and added responsibilities. The average salary for a full-time worker at DEW is still $500 less than the average salary for all state agencies, at $38,100, according to DEW.
“I don't buy that argument,” Coleman said. “It's bad timing.”
Senators also criticized what they called lavish, taxpayer-funded trips.
During Turner's tenure, the agency has held four, three-day conferences in Myrtle Beach, Pawleys Island and North Charleston, costing a combined $194,300. Between 54 and 110 employees attended each. All were funded by the U.S. Department of Labor's veterans affairs program, which gives DEW $100,000 yearly and specifies that it be used for training and incentives, said DEW spokeswoman Adrienne Fairwell, who provided a detailed summary to the AP.
Sen. Kevin Bryant, a long-standing critic of the agency, said the explanation didn't change his mind.
“It's still a waste,” said Bryant, R-Anderson.
Haley said she wishes Turner nothing but the best.
“I appreciate General Turner's – a lifelong public servant – devotion to our state and nation,” she said.
The agency's former director, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. John Finan, will return on his second interim basis, said Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey.
Former Gov. Mark Sanford appointed Finan in 2010, after the Legislature passed an overhaul of the troubled agency and put the renamed department in the governor's Cabinet.
Haley picked Turner, the former commanding officer of Fort Jackson, to lead DEW in May 2011, when he was still chief of staff of the United States Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb.
Turner, a graduate of South Carolina State University, did not start his new role until September 2011, after retiring from the Army.