HAZLETON — Brian Edwards has spent more than half of his life working at United Rehabilitation Services, performing material-handling duties and warehouse work.
He and his co-workers said goodbye to the Hazleton location Wednesday, the organization’s final day of operation. URS clients expressed mixed sentiments about leaving.
“I’m looking forward to other things,” Edwards said. Though he said he’s grown close with some friends, supervisors and co-workers at URS, after 18 years he’s ready to move on.
The Conyngham man said he’ll be starting a recreational summer program on July 1, his 34th birthday, and he starts work with a new agency in the fall, though he wasn’t sure of the details of either.
URS, which employed about 50 people, worked “to improve vocational opportunities and the quality of services for persons with disabilities,” according to its website.
It had about 250 clients working for it, fulfilling labor contracts between URS and private companies.
Client Stacie Peregrin, 38, Sugarloaf, said she holds a contrasting opinion, and after 25 years with URS, she’s sad to leave. But as something of a silver lining, she and many of her friends are going to the same agency this fall, she said.
Though Peregrin said she can’t remember all of the jobs she has done at the center, she worked most recently with art supplies, packaging paints and beads.
And like Edwards, she said she is also participating in a recreation program this summer. When the program concludes, she said she plans to visit her twin sister, Stephanie, an occupational therapist in Chicago, to take in the city and maybe catch a few stage productions.
“She spoils me,” Peregrin said of her sister.
Among employees stewed a mix of anger and sadness, though no individuals would comment on record.
CEO Joe Pierangeli said tears filled his day.
“It’s like I’m attending a funeral,” he said. “It’s a very sad and very emotional experience that we’re all going through.”
Pierangeli said he visited each URS location Wednesday, meeting with staff and board members in Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton and Tunkhannock.
His organization fought to resolve its financial issues, he said, furloughing 13 staffers and letting three management positions go unfilled.
But he said a series of budget cuts, including a massive cut in the 2012 state budget and losses in federal funding during and after the 2013 sequester, yielded insurmountable revenue losses of some $1.6 million.
“We worked with the city, with the region, with the state,” Pierangeli said. “There was no pot of gold in Harrisburg we could rely upon.”
Human services as a whole took a disproportionate hit during the cuts, he said, and groups in Northeastern Pennsylvania receive the least state funding. Unless the state makes changes in the way it assigns funding, he said he predicts more agencies like URS will close.
According to Pierangeli, the state determines funding by region, taking into account an area’s cost-of-living, operational costs and other factors to arrive at a dollar amount, called a fee.
“You’re told you have to sink or swim by that fee,” said Pierangeli, who has been with the agency 12 years.
Though ultimately unsuccessful, the efforts made to save URS are a testament to the counties and legislators “who really care,” said Department of Public Welfare Press Secretary Kait Gillis.
When closure became inevitable, ensuring continuity of care for URS’s clients took a high priority, she said, and her department continues working toward that goal alongside the affected counties.
Gillis said new services for former URS clients will begin Aug. 1, resulting in a “slight coverage gap,” but she said attempts to address this have placed many clients in summer programs. Details on the alternative programs were not available Wednesday.
According to its website, URS formed in 1958 as a result of a study recommending “the establishment of a complete and far-reaching rehabilitation center for the Wyoming Valley to improve vocational opportunities and the quality of services for persons with disabilities.”