FILE - PA Tom Wolf, Chris Hackett

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (left) and i2M CEO Chris Hackett

(The Center Square) – A manufacturing CEO stepped down from Pennsylvania’s Workforce Development Board after Gov. Tom Wolf’s comments regarding unemployment compensation benefits left him stunned and disheartened.

Chris Hackett, CEO of i2M in Luzerne County – one of those hardest hit in the coronavirus pandemic – told the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association that Wolf’s “reckless” statements during an April 21 news conference can inflict real damage on the state’s economy and should be corrected on the record.

“I’m just in disbelief,” Hackett told PMA President David Taylor. “We are facing an incredibly challenging time in our state, and for the chief executive to encourage not just arguably fraudulent behavior, but behavior that’s in conflict with good employment practices … I was terribly concerned."

Hackett sent a letter to the administration April 23 resigning his role on the private sector advisory panel after Wolf told reporters that if businesses want to compete with the extra money their laid off staff receives from federal unemployment assistance, they should increase wages. 

Republican lawmakers have raised concerns that the additional $600 monthly benefit implemented through the federal CARES Act discourages people from returning to work – an unintended consequence Hackett said he’s witnessed firsthand while participating on the board for a food processing facility.

When asked point blank if jobless benefits should be revoked from employees who refuse to return to work because they'll lose money, Wolf said no.

"As a former business owner, if you're faced with that kind of situation, there's one really simple thing you can do and that's raise the compensation of your employees," he said.

“Any reasonable business person knows that’s not a possible solution,” Hackett said. “We can’t remain competitive if we add that $600 a week. That’s $15 an hour. No one can do that. It’s not appropriate for businesses to have to compete with unemployment compensation as a means to getting their facilities operating.”

Pennsylvania’s unemployment claims have exceeded 1.6 million since Wolf mandated all nonessential businesses shut down effective March 23 to limit the spread of COVID-19, which has sickened more than 50,000 residents and killed nearly 2,500 others. The administration’s definition of essential, critics argue, goes above and beyond federal guidance, plunging the state into a far worse economic crisis than necessary.

Wolf, so far, has resisted calls to reopen businesses that insist they can adhere to social distancing requirements and vetoed one GOP-backed bill to align the state’s closure policies with the less restrictive requirements from the Cyber Security and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine has warned the CISA list doesn’t go far enough in limiting economic activity that could trigger an outbreak and overwhelm the health care system – an outcome the state has so far avoided. 

Hackett said he’s also concerned about Wolf’s unwillingness to consult anyone outside of his administration on how best to proceed through COVID-19 crisis – a response that needs input from both lawmakers and the business community, too.

“No one person has all the answers, and he should have sought out input from others then just those in his tight circle,” he said.

Hackett's comments echo the frustrations of Republican lawmakers who say they've grown tired of learning about Wolf's aggressive mitigation strategies through news releases and articles. 

Sens. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, and John Yudichak, I-Luzerne, introduced a bill Thursday that would limit the governor's ability to declare and maintain a disaster declaration without legislative approval. Wolf has relied on broad powers awarded to him through the emergency declaration to enforce the shut downs he's ordered over the last seven weeks.

“Had Governor Wolf consulted with the legislature, or business groups, or anyone outside his administration, perhaps the issues that arose from his orders could have been avoided,” Aument and Yudichak said. “Pennsylvanians would benefit from a consistent and common sense requirement for collaboration. There are always lessons to be learned. In this situation, those lessons can guide us to better handle future emergencies.” 

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.