Damned if You DEW

This week’s report that the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce (DEW) was closing 17 offices around the state – including their Winnsboro office at 414 A S. Congress St. – sent shock waves through a community whose unemployment rate continues to hover around 10.7 percent, well above the state average of 8.4 percent. The idea of a boarded up, padlocked DEW office in the face of such numbers would appear, at first glance, to be the final insult to a long festering injury foisted upon our county’s unemployed.

According to the DEW, the news isn’t all quite so grim. Yes, their in-person services for unemployment claims and assistance with benefits will no longer be available in downtown Winnsboro. Clients requiring that kind of hands-on help will be saddled with the 30-plus mile trip (one-way) to the DEW offices at 700 Taylor St. in Columbia. The DEW’s online services (www.dew.sc.gov) and their toll-free number (1-866-831-1724) should make such road trips a rarity and not a necessity, the agency says, and that may be true. However, Fairfield County, like many rural S.C. counties, is not exactly what one might call an internet hot spot; and while we assume that even the unemployed have managed to pay their phone bills, it is easier to imagine that many have not, making access to the DEW potentially burdensome. And if access to a phone is difficult, how quickly can we imagine that same phoneless, internetless person can gain access to a car for the round trip to Columbia?

The DEW made it clear that the federal dollars funding their offices are directly linked to unemployment numbers and claims for jobless assistance. As those numbers decrease, so do the funds; and as the funds go, so go the rural offices where, DEW says, traffic is also decreased. While that

may be a sunny interpretation, it is a difficult one to absorb in a county with a jobless rate of better than 10 percent.

Why services weren’t withdrawn from counties with lower unemployment rates, like Dorchester (7.1 percent), Greenville (6.8 percent) or Lexington (6.6 percent), or counties with more than one DEW location, is symptomatic of our present administration’s disconnect with the realities of rural South Carolina.

The one fragment of encouraging news from all this – if it is, indeed, accurate – is that only the jobless benefits services are fleeing the county. The employment services, via SC Workforce, will remain on site at the local offices, including in Winnsboro. DEW says those services will stay in place to assist Fairfield County residents in job searches, as well as local businesses seeking to fill vacancies with local manpower.

How much assistance will be available in the Winnsboro office remains to be seen. Sadly, more than a few currently employed there are about to enter the unemployment rolls. And as of Feb. 19, some of them may even have to drive to Columbia to apply for benefits.