Tennessee Labor and Workforce Development commissioner defends jobless service cuts

photo The Tennessee Capitol
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

NASHVILLE - Tennessee's new commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development says cutting jobless services at 34 sites next month shouldn't hurt out-of-work Tennesseans seeking employment.

In fact, Commissioner Burns Phillips told members of the Legislature's Fiscal Review Committee last week, things actually should improve.

The ability to offer services over the Internet will help, he said. And nonprofit Local Workforce Investment Act partners in communities across the state are stepping up to offer services, with the state pitching in computers and other equipment, Phillips said.

"After the career centers were reorganized, there was a lot of angst over that [cuts]," the commissioner said. "But in the final analysis what turned out was we wound up with a broader footprint in the state and not a more narrow footprint."

He said the state now has 23 state comprehensive centers run by Labor and Workforce Development and 52 affiliates run by LWIAs.

Tennessee's state-run career center system helps people find jobs and aids employers by recruiting and screening potential workers. All career centers have computer work stations with Internet access.

Staff members help job applicants use the state's Jobs4TN.gov website to search for work and to create and post resumes. Career centers also offer on-site job preparation workshops and referrals to skills training and supportive services.

The 13 Local Workforce Investment Act districts are nonprofit entities funded with pass-through federal dollars. Many have multiple offices aimed at helping the jobless and employers connect.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said Friday he remains skeptical that the LWIAs will close the gap created by shutting down state-run services in 34 centers and firing 125 state employees.

"It's very disappointing," Fitzhugh said, adding that his district in rural West Tennessee is taking a major hit.

"Here we are just coming out of this recession" and the administration chose to "decimate" career centers, he said.

Jobless residents will have to drive farther and some can't afford an Internet connection to access the department's website from home, he said.

No cuts appear to have occurred in the Chattanooga area, according to information provided by the department.

Phillips has been acting commissioner since Karla Davis abruptly resigned in April. Last week, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam named Phillips permanently to the post.

During the committee hearing, Rep. Tim Wirgau, R-Buchanan, told Phillips 35 to 38 of the 125 Labor and Workforce Development employees losing their jobs live in Northwest Tennessee.

"You said that we're making a broader footprint rather than a narrower footprint. How are we doing that? Because in my neck of the woods in Northwest Tennessee, that's not quite the picture that we see," Wirgau said.

Still, he acknowledged that the LWIA agency in Henry County, his home, is "working hand in hand" with the state. The department is providing some equipment, such as computers.

The Haslam administration said the cuts were necessary because career centers were operating in the red after more than $32 million in one-time federal funding was used to supplement operations.

Officials said they put in $5 million of state funding last year to give the department time to work out a plan to operate the centers "efficiently and effectively."

But Fitzhugh said the department has funds that could have been used to avoid shuttering the 34 centers.

The state's plans to lay off dozens of Labor and Workforce Development workers as well as 126 General Services employees this month have been put on hold by a Nashville judge after the Tennessee State Employees Association filed suit.

The suit charges the state did not provide required job counseling and testing or other job opportunities in state government after the Department of Human Resources closed a website key to such aid.

Human Resources officials said they had to take the site down in May because the state is updating its system to account for payroll changes.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or asher@timesfreepress.com.