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The lines at the unemployment office in Lancaster are about to get a little longer.
Starting Feb. 19, the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce (SCDEW) is reducing the number of its statewide offices for employment services from 56 to 40.
One of those offices is in neighboring Chester County.
That means those in Chester who need face-to-face help with unemployment benefits must drive farther and come to the office here, at 705 N. White St.
It also means that some of those in Chester whose job is to help the unemployed with paperwork are about to be laid off themselves.
Statewide, the agency laid off 55 people in October 2012. Closing up the 16 offices will cut an additional 75 jobs. The cutbacks, the agency said, are a result of a loss of federal funding.
Other offices that will be closed are in Abbeville, Hampton, Kingstree, Union, Allendale, Bamberg, Bishopville, Chesterfield, Dillon, Edgefield, Manning, McCormick, Jasper, Saluda and Winnsboro.
Seven of the offices are located in counties posting the 10 highest jobless rates in South Carolina.
However, the Chester office won’t be closing, said agency spokeswoman Adrienne Fairwell. The SC Works career center there will remain open.
Clients in Chester County can still get services online at mybenefits.dew.sc.gov or by calling 1 (866) 831-1724.
Those from Chester who require in-person services will be directed to the Lancaster office.
In a release, Abraham Turner, the agency’s executive director, said DEW remains deeply committed to its mission to put South Carolinians back to work.
“DEW is seizing upon this challenging time as an opportunity to improve the way we do business,” Turner said. “As we increasingly promote our self-service unemployment insurance services available online and by phone, we will ultimately increase our agency’s overall efficiency.”
The news didn’t go over well with S.C. Sen. Creighton Coleman (D-17), who represents Chester and Fairfield counties. Coleman calls the cutback in services as an attack on rural South Carolinians.
Ever since the announcement was made, DEW officials have been on a hot seat. They appeared before the Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry subcommittee Wednesday to answer questions about the streamlining.
“If you look at the areas affected, they are all rural and they all have high unemployment,” Coleman said.
The U.S. Labor Department issued its latest national unemployment numbers Feb. 1.
U.S. employers added 157,000 jobs in January and hiring was stronger than January 2012 and January 2011, but the nation’s unemployment rate rose to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent in December.
The rate was calculated from a household survey and more people said they were unemployed.
The latest jobless numbers for the state and Lancaster County will be available in mid-February when DEW issues its monthly update.
Lancaster County’s jobless rate was 11.6 percent in December – up from 11 percent the month before.
Chester County had the highest unemployment rate among counties that borders Lancaster County at 13.1 percent. Following were Chesterfield (11.7 percent), Fairfield (10.7), York (10.2) and Kershaw (8.1) counties.
Contact copy editor Gregory A. Summers at (803) 283-1156