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Gov. Wolf not closing county assistance offices in restructuring, but 70 jobs could be cut

| Sunday, March 19, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Pennsyvlania Gov. Tom Wolf listens to Cambria County officials during a roundtable discussion on the opioid abuse epidemic plaguing the state, at Central Cambria High School in Ebensburg on Thursday, March 16, 2017.

Gov. Tom Wolf's proposal to restructure county assistance offices won't lead to closures but could eliminate some jobs, state and union officials said.

The governor wants to shift “back-office functions” — processing case paperwork and making eligibility determinations — to five regional processing centers as part of his proposal to consolidate the departments of Aging, Health, Drug and Alcohol Programs, and Human Services into one agency. Wolf expects the changes to save $7 million.

“Part of what is inherent in the consolidation is, is there a way we can reimagine and restructure how government works instead of nibbling around the edges?” Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas said.

He said Wolf's proposal aims to reduce the “physical footprint” of each county assistance office while still maintaining a presence as a “storefront” operation.

The change would be “seamless” for consumers because they typically don't interact with the back-office operations, Dallas said.

Social workers at the offices help the needy apply for medical, child care, home heating, supplemental nutrition assistance and other social welfare programs.

“Pennsylvania has to try all opportunities to reduce the size of government and improve the experience for our residents,” said state Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, whose district includes the Westmoreland County assistance office in Greensburg. “I know officially we're always supposed to be in disagreement, but I give (Wolf) credit for trying. ... If we're increasing or improving the grassroot experience, it could be a positive thing.”

However, Wolf's proposal has generated concern among workers and led to rumors about closures. Dallas and Service Employees International Union, which represents assistance office workers, said those rumors are unfounded.

“What we know as fact is that no county assistance office is closing,” Tom Herman, president of SEIU Local 668, wrote in an email. “We have heard that top management wants to shift some work to processing centers, but the specifics are not clear on how that would be accomplished.”

Herman said the union is opposed to downsizing already understaffed offices and is open to working with the administration on its restructuring plan. However, more details about the proposal are needed, he said.

Dallas has tried to reassure workers at the 96 county assistance offices about their job security, sending an email addressing the office closing rumors. Nelson said he recently met with a constituent who was worried about the potential impact on the workforce.

“Obviously, with any initiative that introduces change, there is apprehension and concern for people affected,” Dallas said.

The proposal could cut 70 jobs from the nearly 7,000 workers in county assistance offices in 2018, he said.

Those reductions would come from attrition and an early retirement incentive Wolf has proposed but that has yet to be adopted.

Wolf's restructuring proposal would target offices with a high staff turnover. DHS loses about 80 assistance office workers a month because of turnover, Dallas said.

Although the number of office locations in each county will not be reduced, locations could change if a cheaper, smaller office space can be leased, he said.

It's unclear where the five new processing centers would be located. Dallas expects two to open by June 2018. The state has 11 processing centers that handle overflow processing from county assistance offices.

Wolf has hired New York consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to help identify potential savings. The group recommended restructuring the assistance offices, noting in a report that Florida's ACCESS program consolidated back-office processing work between 2003 and 2008. The Department of Children and Families in Florida reported a 43 percent reduction in staff size and an increase in its online application rate.

“Every state is different,” Dallas said. “I think Florida did what worked for Florida.”

More online applications could benefit consumers and the performance of county assistance offices, said Wendy Drapcho, mental health program manager at Family Services of Western Pennsylvania, which provides mental health, child welfare and other safety net services in Allegheny, Westmoreland and Armstrong counties.

“You take a number and can wait for three hours,” she said. “In the old days, when they used to have more local offices, the wait time was not always as long. But as they've consolidated, that wait time can be extremely long.”

Stephen Christian-Michaels, CEO of Family Services of Western Pennsylvania, said the easier the process is for people, the better the entire process is.

“Going to the office, in this day and age, shouldn't be the only way you get services,” he said.

Kevin Zwick is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2856 or

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