COLUMBIA — Democratic legislators on Tuesday called the removal of in-person unemployment help from 17 offices an attack on rural South Carolina.


Lawmakers made the accusations a day after the Department of Employment and Workforce announced plans to reduce its offices for unemployment services from 56 to 39 statewide. The face-to-face help ends at those 17 offices – all in rural areas – on Feb. 15.


The unemployment agency said the consolidation comes because federal money to fund its operations has dropped. Spokeswoman Adrienne Fairwell said the decisions were based on foot-traffic statistics.


Clients can either drive to an office in an adjoining county or go online to access all services, including filing for initial and weekly claims. A toll-free number offers some help, but not with initial benefit requests.


House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said services are ending in the most vulnerable counties, where unemployment remains above the state average and residents have the most trouble with transportation and computers.


The offices aren’t closing. SC Works career centers will remain open there and offer access to computers. But Rutherford and others said many rural residents who’ve been laid off lack computer skills and need help navigating the online system.


“People may not have a car, and they certainly do not have the gas money” to drive to another county for help, said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.


Rutherford, D-Columbia, said ending the in-person assistance blocks people’s access to jobless benefits.


He called it part of Gov. Nikki Haley’s “war on the unemployed in South Carolina.” Rep. Harry Ott, former minority leader, called it Haley’s “war on rural South Carolina.”


Haley’s spokesman, Rob Godfrey, fired back that the governor has a war on unemployment, not the unemployed.


The state’s unemployment rate was 8.4 percent in December, down from a high of 12 percent three years earlier. Both the state and national jobless rates hit four-year lows in November.


“Gov. Haley measures success by how many South Carolinians have jobs, not by how many unemployment offices we have,” Godfrey said.


The Department of Employment and Workforce is a Cabinet agency. Godfrey declined to said whether the governor had any input in the agency’s decision on offices but said she stands by it.


“If we have fewer unemployed, we need fewer government workers administering our unemployment program,” Godfrey said.


County offices ending the in-person help include Bamberg, Haley’s hometown. Godfrey notes that the governor’s nonprofit, the Original Six Foundation, has held day-long charity events in four of the state’s hardest hit counties, including Bamberg. The Republican governor likes to boast that the state has announced new jobs in all but one of the state’s 46 counties since she took office. That one county left out – McCormick – is among offices where service is ending.


At the height of business layoffs, claims for unemployment benefits hit 100,000 weekly. About 42,000 now receive payments, Fairwell said.


The agency operates almost entirely on federal funds, except for $300,000 state taxes provide for a high school program required by state law. Since 2010, the federal government has decreased what it sends the state for administrative costs by $15 million, Fairwell said.


Rutherford said the agency should ask legislators to fund the staff needed to keep services running.


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


The cuts include 18 full-time employees, 37 part-time staff, 10 working retirees, and 10 jobs through attrition, Fairwell said.


Hutto said if low client numbers were behind the decision, the agency should have considered staffing the offices on a reduced-hours basis.


Fairwell said that’s already happening. Of the 17 offices, only seven currently operate five days a week. The agency will temporarily send someone to those seven at least once weekly to help people with their benefits, she said. She did not specify how long that will last.


The agency mailed nearly 6,500 letters to affected clients. The letters went to people assigned to those 17 offices who have filed a claim in the last month, either in person or online.


The office with the most reassignments was Kingstree, at 1,200 letters, followed by Chester at 889, Dillon at 645, Abbeville at 585, and Winnsboro at 561, according to the agency.