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State axes mass layoff rapid response team

8:51 AM, Apr 30, 2013   |    comments
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By Walter F Roche, Jr., The Tennessean

Tennessee labor officials are shutting down a federally funded rapid response team that had been used to provide quick assistance to employees caught in the midst of mass layoffs across the state.

The elimination of the unit, which had been in operation for about a decade, comes despite the strong protest of some members of a state workforce advisory board. That board had refused to approve the change at a meeting last fall, and charged that the state's last-minute change failed to comply with federal notice requirements.

Jeff Hentschel, a spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said some of the seven members of the team already have been given layoff notices, while others will be formally notified shortly. All will be off the state payroll by June 18.

He denied that the state violated the federal notice requirements, saying the state has the right to amend its annual plan prior to submission to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The job of responding to mass layoffs will now be delegated to 13 regional workforce agencies across the state. Hentschel said the $568,000 in cost savings will be allocated to those regional agencies, "who will absorb the rapid response duties and responsibilities."

The state recently laid off an additional 125 employees who provided career job services at centers across the state.

Guy Derryberry, a member of the executive committee of the state Workforce Development board, said the elimination of the response team was inserted in the state's annual plan just two days before the panel was scheduled to vote on the overall plan.

Derryberry also charged that draft minutes of the board's Sept. 13, 2012, meeting incorrectly state that the panel approved the revised plan, even though they expressly refused to act on the change.

In fact, the draft minutes contain no reference to the objections raised by Derryberry at the meeting and, as a result, the panel refused to accept the minutes when they were brought up for approval at a subsequent meeting.

Wallace Grills, the committee chairman, agreed that the proposal to eliminate the response team was controversial and sparked debate.

"A lot of people questioned it," he said.

Hentschel defended the omission, stating that the minutes were intended to be summaries of board action and not "a transcription of all language contained in a meeting."

The elimination of the unit, whose employees have a combined 145 years of experience, has sparked a letter-writing campaign to state legislators and the governor charging that the last-minute changes were the result of recommendations from an out-of-state consultant brought in by the recently departed top management at the labor agency.

In fact, the disputed minutes quote former Deputy Labor Commissioner Alisa Malone as thanking the consultant, Mary Ann Lawrence of the Center for Workforce Learning, for her assistance in developing the plan.

Lawrence, according to the minutes, was present for the September session.

Earlier this year, the state of Tennessee halted payments to Lawrence's company, which collected $1.1 million in fees through the Department of Labor and Workforce Development despite being cited in two successive state audits for contracting irregularities.

Derryberry charged that the minutes seemed to him to be "an attempt to cover up stuff" and questioned whether the area agencies will have the staff and expertise to deal with mass layoffs.

Under federal law, to qualify for federal workforce funds, states are required to have rapid response mechanisms in place to deal with large-scale layoffs.

Members of the statewide team were deployed last week to assist those being laid off at a General Motors plant.

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