Feeling the effects of state layoffs, Harrisburg bickering

Claims examiner Penny Erney

Claims examiner Penny Erney

Less than two weeks ago, more than 500 Pennsylvania state employees were laid off. The cuts — which affected the state’s unemployment compensation program — were a result of political bickering between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration and the GOP-led state Senate.

The situation has prompted a lot of finger-pointing and a lot of bitterness from the rank-and-file workers caught in the middle.

James and Amy Jensen live in a neat, two-story house on top of a steep hill in Windsor, York County. The couple — both in their mid-40s — just bought the house in September, and are beginning to pay off the mortgage.

They have one daughter, Elizabeth, who’s away for college at Widener University. They’re also parents to two small dogs and an orange cat named Mango.

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Just a few days before Christmas, there’s wrapping paper and gifts scattered around the living room. We sit at the dining room table to talk. The whole house smells like baked goods.

But this year, there’s a bit of a dark cloud over the holiday preparations. Amy and James have both worked in the state unemployment compensation program for the past several years. And on Dec. 19, they were both suddenly out of a job.

“I had been maintaining a positive attitude, because it wasn’t going to change,” says James. “Gathering together what information was necessary, talking with Amy about finances — and then on Tuesday, it wasn’t even a conscious thing, I was in just a really terrible state.”

“I think after the new year is when it’s going to be like — that’s when it’s going to hit me,” says Amy. “And I think I’m using the baking of Christmas cookies and the wrapping of some gifts to keep me out of that hopeless feeling.”

The Jensens both began working in the UC program in the wake of the 2008 housing market crash. They moved into permanent positions in 2011, and since then they’ve climbed steadily up the ladder.

When the layoffs hit, James was working as an administrative assistant. Amy was an employment security examiner. And both of them were based out of the Harrisburg Overflow Center.

When they talk about the work they did, their pride is unmistakable.

“Everyone that I have ever worked with, we all care about what we’re doing,” says Amy. “Because — especially in the Harrisburg overflow center — the majority of the people that work there lost their jobs in 2008, 2009. And where they came to work was the unemployment office. So we were a really special group of people because we understood where they were. We felt that.”

In the months leading up to the layoffs, Amy says the workers were well-aware of the financial difficulties in the state that could threaten their jobs. She says they talked about it every day.

The Wolf administration began making it known in April that in order to continue funding the UC program, they’d need an extension on a dedicated four-year funding stream that was about to expire.

That kicked off months of back-and-forth between the administration and the GOP leaders of the House and Senate.

The House passed the funding extension in October, and the decision came down to a Senate vote in November, right before the end of the legislative session.

Amy says she felt sure the bill would pass, especially because the House vote had been strongly bipartisan. But in a surprise move, the chamber decided not to vote, citing concerns about fiscal responsibility.

“The fact that they didn’t vote is just a kick in the ribs. It really is,” she says.

“Thank you for using the word ‘ribs.’ That’s not the word I would have used,” says James.

“Yeah I had to watch myself,” she says, laughing.

“The not voting doesn’t give people their dignity,” says Jim.

Since the initial layoff announcement, the Jensens say they — and many of their friends — have been groping for some kind of stability.

“We just bought a house. We have a kid in college,” says Amy. “And we — we work real hard to make sure she doesn’t have to stress about what we stress as her parents.”

But they say the worst thing isn’t the house, or the college — it’s the health insurance. Or lack thereof.

James has rheumatoid arthritis, which he says is a pain on its own. But he also has sleep apnea and hypersomnia. And that means unless he’s on a specific cocktail of medications, he really can’t function normally.

“If we get some different insurance, who knows if that’ll be covered,” says James, “and I won’t be able to necessarily function the same way, and be the person that Amy needs me to be, and that Elizabeth needs me to be, so that I can do what I can to take care of us. And I feel guilty about that.”

Amy is still holding on to an idea that, somehow, the legislature will return to session and immediately fix things. “I always have hope that they’re going to come back, they’re going to vote, and we’re going to go back and do what we do,” she says. But she admits, it’s looking less and less likely.

The Senate has said it’s willing to take another look at the funding. But the bill will have to be restarted from scratch when the session begins, and under normal circumstances that would take several months.

The Jensens both say they don’t want to wait that long.

Amy has applied for a job outside the state system, and she plans to send in more applications after the holidays. James has sent in seven applications to state positions so far. And they’re helping each other stay optimistic.

She says she feels hopeful.

“We have to be,” says James.

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