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BLOCKADE FORMED TO KEEP 200 JOBS HERE

Western New York's delegation to Albany is forming a bi-partisan blockade against a plan to move over 200 Labor Department jobs to faraway call centers, state Sen. Dale M. Volker said Monday.

Volker, R-Depew, said he and Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve, D-Buffalo, sent a letter to Gov. Pataki on behalf of the region's 16-member delegation, objecting to the consolidation plan.

"We're saying that, if you're going to do this, Buffalo ought to be considered for a site," Volker said. He made the remarks before about 100 members of the Public Employees Federation gathered in Williamsville.

The Labor Department announced a plan in September to consolidate hundreds of unemployment claims processing jobs into three computerized call centers, called "Remote Initial Claims Centers" or "RICs," by 1999. Troy and New York City are to host two centers, with Binghamton a strong contender for the third.

The RIC plan, combined with federal administrative changes, could erase as many as 259 Labor Department jobs around Western New York, estimates Dennis Beagle, a member of the Public Employees Federation's executive board.

But Legislators at Monday's meeting called the announcement a trial balloon -- one that will be fiercely buffeted by public opinion before it touches down.

"Probably every major city in the state is going to be asking for one of these," Volker said, drawing laughs when he explained that the chosen sites had the advantage of being "fully wired."

Acting Labor Commissioner James Dillon has told several legislators that any final decision on the call center sites is a long way off, lawmakers said. A long-range federal initiative to squeeze more efficiency out of the unemployment insurance system is behind the call center plan, lawmakers said. The state is preparing for a day when the federally funded program will require more claims to be processed with fewer workers. At RICs, computers would gather initial information from claimants before handing the call off to a claims worker.

Officials of the Public Employees Federation derided the automation plan, saying that it will cut off people who lack touch-tone phones, or who have speech or hearing difficulties.

And state workers in Buffalo would be among the farthest from any of the proposed centers, making the plan especially hard to swallow here.

"It's unconscionable for the state to say it's not going to lay anybody off, then give you the choice to move yourself and your family 200 miles or go on a preferred employment roster," Public Employees Federation vice president Ken Brynien said. He charged the state government with "moving employees around like chess pieces because they have buildings to fill."

Assemblyman Richard Smith, D-Hamburg, said the consolidation plan mirrors others he's seen from the Pataki administration. Some Motor Vehicles Department jobs, for example, are moving to Albany under a plan that shifts work from county offices.

"If we're going to serve people, we can't do everything out of Albany," he said.

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