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From the archives 2020

Wolf administration lays off about 2,500 state employees as financial fallout from the coronavirus deepens

by Angela Couloumbis and Rebecca Moss of Spotlight PA |

Commonwealth Media Services

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HARRISBURG — The Wolf administration has laid off about 2,500 part-time and seasonal employees and interns as the financial fallout from the coronavirus deepens, straining Pennsylvania’s cash flow, Spotlight PA has learned.

The affected workers, which include temporary clerical staff and employees who help out in departments across state government during busy periods, were placed on “leave without pay” Friday. There is currently no timeline to recall them back to work, according to Gov. Tom Wolf’s Office of Administration.

Some of the departments impacted include revenue and transportation, state officials said. It wasn’t immediately clear which other departments were affected, though several employ seasonal workers, including the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which oversees state park facilities, and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board

Employees who work for the state health and labor departments, which are central to the coronavirus response, were not impacted, state officials said.

“While we work to fund the increased need for essential state services, there has been, and will continue to be, a decline in revenue coming into the state,” the Office of Administration, to which the governor’s office referred questions, said in a statement. “The state is taking a measured approach to the COVID-19 outbreak and that includes managing our finances.”

The layoffs Friday could be the first in a wave of job losses within state government, which is bracing for hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues as businesses shut down, unemployment claims spike to unparalleled levels, and more people seek other public assistance benefits.

Already, Wolf has ordered a hiring freeze and general purchasing ban for state agencies in an effort to cut spending.

David Fillman is executive director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 13, which represents the majority of the state workers who were laid off. On Sunday, he said the union still had not received official notification from the commonwealth or information about which workers were affected.

Until he does, it is unclear what those workers’ rights are, though they have fewer protections than full-time workers.

Temporary, part-time, and seasonal workers are there to fill in the gaps, Fillman said. When full-time employees become ill, “that exacerbates the problem of getting rid of the part-time [workers].”

“It is going to be a difficult road as we deal with this pandemic,” Fillman said.

For the past two weeks, state officials have been focused on preventing the health system from being overwhelmed with a crush of sick patients.

The legislature has approved $50 million in emergency funding that Wolf can provide to hospitals, nursing homes, and emergency medical providers to buy equipment and supplies. The administration has also relaxed licensing and other requirements for retired doctors, nurses, medical students, pharmacists, and other health care workers.

Wolf has also shut down schools statewide and issued stay-at-home orders for residents in 22 counties. On Saturday, the governor added Centre, Beaver, and Washington Counties to that list, directing residents there to remain at home unless they need medicine, food, or other services essential to living.

But packing one of the biggest punches to the state’s finances is Wolf’s order late last week to close businesses that do not provide “life-sustaining” services or products. His administration has set up a waiver process, but it has been criticized as chaotic and opaque.

The coronavirus response has already taxed Pennsylvania’s resources, leaving the state to contend with declining revenues and a sharp spike in demand for public assistance. Pennsylvania residents have filed about 745,000 applications for unemployment compensation benefits in the past two weeks.

Compounding the picture is the uncertainty of how bad the outbreak will be — and how long it will last.

During a briefing with reporters Saturday, Wolf said Pennsylvania and its local governments could get about $5 billion from the federal stimulus package just approved by Congress.

“But that’s going to be allocated in ways that have yet to be made known to at least us in Harrisburg,” Wolf said.

Health officials on Sunday reported 643 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 3,394.

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