I worked for two years at the Harrisburg Overflow Center as an Intake Interviewer. When the furloughs occurred, I was half-way through the training to become an Examiner. I really enjoyed my job; it was challenging and rewarding; I felt I found true purpose serving the citizens of Pennsylvania. My previous work was in Human Resources. I studied journalism and psychology. I previously had no experience in political activism prior to the furloughs, and this was the first union job I ever had.
“What are you going to do for me?” This was the first question I ever asked a politician. It was November 2016, and I called my senator just after learning that I would be furloughed because the Senate failed to vote on funding for my department. It seemed like a reasonable question, because I had done nothing wrong, and it was their job to work for us, I thought. However, I soon learned that it was the wrong question to ask. I had to do something myself. I had to actively participate in the process. I met with the Senator in person in mid-January but got nowhere. He essentially said he did not have the power to do anything alone. A few days later, the union held a “rally/lobby day”, and the legislative director of SEIU 668 asked if anyone wanted to come back to the capitol to meet with legislators. I said yes, because I was curious to see if I could find one who had the power to do something.
Along with other furloughed employees, we met with many legislators over the next ten weeks. Persistence was essential. Many of them did not think there was an issue, at first. This motivated me to go to the Careerlink offices, and speak directly to the people trying to obtain their unemployment benefits. Other furloughed workers had already started doing this. The union put me in touch with them, and we began communicating about our activities, inspiring each other to keep going out, and sharing news about what we heard and saw. Many of us were afraid to approach claimants. We knew they could be hostile on the phones. What would they do when they saw us in person? We quickly learned that sure, they were angry, but once we told them why they were standing in line, they would direct that anger at their legislators. After they started calling, more legislators scheduled meetings with us. They wanted to be educated about the crisis so that, if nothing else, they could learn what needed to be done to cut down on all the calls coming into their offices. While our early meetings were to convince them there was a crisis, our later meetings were focused on how to fix it.
We discussed our tactics as we learned from what we encountered. Without the Careerlink events and the many other furloughed employees calling and visiting their legislators, we would not have seen the success we witnessed, finally, on March 29th—100 days after December 19th—when the Senate finally voted to approve funding. We still have a lot of work to do to get the funding we need, but with the help of my fellow union members, I know we can pull through. There were many times in that 100 days when I felt like giving up. Thankfully, more people joined the fight after we started, and gave us fresh life. We encouraged each other when we felt defeated, and we made each other laugh when we felt like crying. And we no longer ask, “What can you do for me?” The question is, “How can we help each other?”