COLUMBIA — Jobless persons who want face-to-face assistance with their unemployment benefits in South Carolina may face a longer drive starting Feb. 19.


The Department of Employment and Workforce is reducing its offices for unemployment services from 56 to 39, spokeswoman Adrienne Fairwell told The Associated Press on Monday.


Clients can still get services online or by calling a toll-free number. But thousands of rural residents will need to drive elsewhere for face-to-face help.


For example, Edgefield County clients will go to the Aiken County office. And residents who are going to offices in either Bamberg or St. Matthews are being sent to Orangeburg.


“We want our clientele to know they need to go to a different office,” Fairwell said.


The last day for assistance with unemployment benefits at the 17 offices is Feb. 15. However, those offices won’t close. S.C. Works career centers will remain at those locations, she said.


She said the agency’s decisions were based on “foot traffic” statistics.


“There was no one area targeted. This regionalization process was done based on statistics and data, and it was statewide,” Fairwell said. “We are automating things to increase efficiency. We don’t need the face-to-face as much as we’ve had in the past.”


Since 2011, unemployed residents have been able to access all jobless benefits services online – including filing for initial and weekly claims – and they must provide the agency an email address for communication. Those without a home computer can use one at their local public library or S.C. Works center, she said.


But an advocate for the poor said it’s the rural counties where people need the most help with computers and transportation.


“People in rural counties probably have a harder time getting to the office than anybody else because of transportation issues,” said Sue Berkowitz of Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “Rural areas cannot afford to lose one service.”


She called the decrease of in-person help one more barrier for people to get benefits, which average just $239 weekly. In South Carolina, the maximum payment is $326 weekly for up to 20 weeks.


Seven of the 17 offices are located in counties posting the 10 highest jobless rates in South Carolina: Allendale, ranked second highest in December with 15.6 percent unemployed; Clarendon, fifth-highest; Bamberg, Dillon, and Union counties, tied for sixth-highest; Chester, seventh-worst; and McCormick, eighth-worst at 12.7 percent.


The agency said 6,000 affected clients have been notified by mail.


The letters went to people assigned to those 17 offices who have filed a claim in the last month. While the jobless are assigned to their nearest office, they can go to any of the soon-to-be 39 locations for help, Fairwell said.


The agency said a loss of federal funds led to the change.


The agency hired more staff to handle a growing number of claims for unemployment benefits during and following the Great Recession.


At the height of business layoffs, claims hit 100,000 weekly. About 42,000 now receive payments. South Carolina’s unemployment rate was 8.4 percent in December, down from 12 percent three years earlier.


The agency operates almost entirely on federal funds. Since 2010, the federal government has decreased what it sends the state for administrative costs by $15 million, Fairwell said.


DEW laid off 55 employees last October, when the federal fiscal year begins. An additional 75 jobs will be cut by Feb. 15, some through attrition, bringing the agency’s workforce to 997 employees, she said.