State closing 34 career centers

11:41 AM, Apr 20, 2013   |    comments
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By: Walter F. Roache Jr., The Tennessean

About 125 employees of the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development have been told their jobs are being eliminated and career job services will no longer be provided at 34 locations across the state.

Jeff Hentschel, spokesman for the agency, said most of the affected employees were told of the layoffs in a meeting today. A budget deficit is being blamed for the layoffs.

Hentschel said that not all 34 offices will be closing because they are shared with other agencies, but career services will no longer be available at those so-called satellite offices.

The changes will take effect no later than July 1.

The state said the centers had been operating at a deficit for several years, and that more than $32 million in one-time federal funds had been used to supplement the program.

In addition, the state gave an additional $5 million in funding last year to give the department time to develop a new plan for running the career center network.

"The career center restructure was part of the Governor's budget proposal presented in late January and subsequently approved by the General Assembly," Hentschel said in a brief email.

Burns Phillips, Tennessee's acting labor commissioner, said the change will still be able to meet the needs of Tennessee's unemployed population.

"We understand the importance of providing support to job seekers and take that responsibility seriously," Burns said. "This plan allows us to rightsize the program and continue services to all 95 counties."

Hentschel denied that the notices were delayed until just before the end of the legislative session. A year ago, the legislature approved funding to keep the career centers running.

"The law requires a 60-day notice be given to preferred (civil service) staff. The fiscal year ending June 30th drove the timeline - not the legislative session," Hentschel wrote.

The effectiveness of the state's $52 million job training program has been called into question recently after state auditors found regional job training centers across the state were inflating their numbers to hit strict performance measures and keep their federal funding.

According to an audit by the state comptroller released last month, the training centers failed to remove people who didn't find jobs in a timely manner or continue their training. By doing so, the training centers, which are operated by either nonprofit groups or local government agencies, kept their statistics up and avoided the prospect of losing their federal funding.

In the past, Haslam administration officials have blamed deficits in workforce development on a former Labor and Workforce administrator, Don Ingram, who was dismissed a year ago and is fighting the action in a pending federal lawsuit.

In a statement issued in 2012, Hentschel said Ingram's dismissal "resulted from an ongoing review of the division, which found that under his leadership, the division and its various programs experienced severe and undisclosed budget deficits."

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