Labor Department courtesy of Google Street View

The state Labor Department announced Wednesday that it was eliminating 95 positions as part of a cost-saving and consolidation effort in response to a drop in federal funding.

As a result of the layoffs, the Labor Department will reduce the number of job centers from 11 to 6, and consolidate its other functions, like field audits and appeal locations. It also will merge two call centers. The consolidated call center will be located in Middletown.

Union employees who will be experiencing all but one of the layoffs said the reduction of frontline workers will increase the wait times for those filing unemployment claims, for those seeking jobs, and employers appealing claims.

“We are definitely going to be taking a major hit as far as services being delivered,” Xavier Gordon, president of AFSCME Council 4 Local 269 in Bridgeport, said.

Christine Stuart photo

At AFSCME Council 4’s union hall in New Britain workers expressed their disappointment with the decision to move forward with the layoffs. They said the closures of job centers will impact those communities that need to be connected to jobs.

Gordon said at the moment it’s taking 2.5 to 3 hours to file an initial unemployment claim over the phone. By consolidating the call centers, he speculated that those numbers will only get worse.

The decision to consolidate the number of employees available to hear appeals will also impact the amount of time it takes for an employer or employee to get their appeal heard. The current time to get an appeal heard is 6 to 8 weeks, Gordon said. Reducing staff in that department will only mean it will take longer.

Sal Luciano, president of AFSCME Council 4, said this is a real problem for the state of Connecticut.

“If the state of Connecticut wants a Connecticut Department of Labor they won’t have it after these layoffs,” Luciano said.

He said unemployed individuals may be able to get benefits, “but after these layoffs it won’t be anytime soon.”

Caroline Raynis, the chief union steward for a region that includes the New Britain and Meriden job centers which will be closed under the plan the administration released Wednesday, said New Britain has the fourth highest unemployment rate in the state.

She said the job center serves those who are unemployed and those who are underemployed. Ironically, the department will soon be offering their co-workers with the very same services they offer the public.

Luciano said he’s not sure there’s anything they can do to change the administration’s mind about the layoffs, but they wanted to make sure the public was aware of how they will be impacted by them.

“With fewer employees there will be increased waits in offices and on the phone, but we are confident in the Department’s ability to respond in a way that will minimize disruptions in the delivery of services,” Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes said.

Under the collective bargaining agreements that cover these employees, the state must provide at least six weeks’ notice, which means the layoffs will be effective October 1.  In addition, many employees whose positions have been eliminated may have “bumping” rights, either within the Labor Department or, in some cases, across state government.  As a result, additional layoff notices may be issued in the coming weeks.

A press release from the Office of Policy and Management says the department is making transition assistance available to its impacted employees.

The reduction in staff is necessary because of federal funding for the department is expected to decrease by $32 million over the next two years. The layoffs will result in recurring savings of more than $16 million.

Connecticut’s unemployment rate is down to 5.7 percent from a high of 9 percent in 2010 and 2011.

The department employs approximately 800 employees, with 700 paid for with federal funds.

“It is extraordinarily difficult to have to reduce staff, especially given the enormous contributions of these Department of Labor employees in getting Connecticut residents back to work during our long struggle to bring down unemployment in the state,” Barnes said.  “We are all fully committed to helping these valuable employees find new positions in state government or elsewhere, as soon as possible.”