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Sen. DiSanto wants Labor & Industry secretary removed, calls him 'failure' for COVID-19 response

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Sen. John DiSanto is calling for the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry to be removed from his post, saying his “response to the COVID-19 pandemic can only be described as a failure.”

DiSanto, a Republican, sent a letter Tuesday to Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, making the request to remove W. Gerard “Jerry” Oleksiak. The request came after Tuesday’s joint hearing of the Senate Labor & Industry and Communications & Technology committees, DiSanto said.

DiSanto serves on the Labor & Industry Committee. His 15th Senate District includes all of Perry County and part of Dauphin, including the Hummelstown area and Derry Township as well as the city of Harrisburg.

“His management of the department leading up to and during this response to the COVID-19 pandemic can only be described as a failure,” the letter states. “I heard excuses and blame, but not the leadership and action that is needed at the helm of the Department of Labor & Industry.”

The Department of Labor & Industry is in charge of paying out unemployment compensation benefits, which have skyrocketed because of the pandemic — since mid-March, nearly 1.7 million Pennsylvanians have filed for regular unemployment compensation. Wolf has said the system is simply not designed for those types of numbers, but that the department is taking steps to address the problem.

DiSanto’s letter said he is “outraged at the department’s continued inability to process the benefits rightly owed to my frustrated constituents calling my office as a direct result of this state’s action shutting down their employment. I am outraged we learned today the secretary was having internal discussions about the pandemic’s potential impacts on the department in January yet there was no mention of any such impacts or preparations during the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Feb. 24. I am disappointed that, in response to my direct question, the secretary focused on defending himself but said nothing about what has been learned from this experience nor laid out a concrete plan and timelines for helping the 1.7 million unemployed Pennsylvanians.”

DiSanto said in his letter that he opposed Oleksiak’s nomination to be secretary in 2017 because “I did not believe his resume had the technical and operations experience to hold agency management accountable for results and improve service quality for taxpayers.”

Oleksiak’s biography on the Department of Labor & Industry website says that before joining the department on Sept. 5, 2017, he most recently served as president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association — the largest professional association in the commonwealth. Prior to becoming president in 2015, he served as PSEA vice president, treasurer, and as a member of the board of directors.

“Jerry is especially proud of the more than three decades he spent as a classroom teacher, most of that time as a special education teacher at the Upper Merion Area School District in King of Prussia. He also served as president of the Upper Merion Area Education Association,” the biography states.

“Throughout his career, Jerry has collaborated with employers, employees, and community groups in order to create partnerships that benefit all stakeholders,” it states.

He was born and raised in Philadelphia and graduated from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where he earned a bachelor's degree in international relations and a teaching certificate in social studies in 1974. He later earned a master's degree in education from Saint Joseph's, and worked to earn his special education certification through LaSalle University.

DiSanto said that “Pennsylvanians have been disserved by a government bureaucracy that rewards political favoritism over competence and merit,” and he asks that Wolf “please correct this deficiency immediately.”

A Wolf spokeswoman told the Press & Journal that the governor has no intention of replacing Oleksiak.

"It is unfortunate that Senator DiSanto, during a pandemic not seen in over 100 years, has refused to provide the people of his district, or Pennsylvania, with a plan to ensure they can remain safe while also being a constructive voice on ensuring our economy heals," said Lyndsay Kensinger. "Voting to prematurely open tens of thousands of businesses during the height of the coronavirus is disappointing, as well. There is no guarantee it would do anything other than cause confusion, and put employees in harm’s way."

She continued: "If ever there was a time to refrain from playing politics, it is now. The governor is committed to working with the senator to save lives, and chart a path to real recovery for those who have been impacted most."

"Secretary Oleksiak has overseen an effort to provide billions of dollars to those who need unemployment compensation in this unprecedented time. The governor is proud he serves the commonwealth, and that he will continue to do so," she said.