"In all probability, that number is much less," Ted Halley, the commission's executive director, told members of the Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry Subcommittee on Wednesday.
The admission was among information that drew frustration from senators. Lawmakers also complained about the lack of coordination between officials in charge of assisting the unemployed, which also includes Department of Commerce staff.
The same day, the Employment Security Commission announced that South Carolina's most recent unemployment spike from 9.5 percent in December to 10.4 percent in January pushed it into second place nationally behind Michigan.
"It's driving me crazy that there apparently has been no coordinated effort," said Sen. Nikki Setzler, a Democrat who represents the eastern portion of Aiken County. "I don't believe there's 18,000 jobs that people aren't qualified for in South Carolina."
Indeed, there are not.
"That is a rolling number at any given time," Mr. Halley said.
Sen. Greg Ryberg, the committee's chairman, said it was "bizarre" that the Commerce Department was unable to get specific information from the Employment Security Commission about the jobless.
"So there's a state law that says a person that is unemployed, their name and whereabouts is to be kept confidential, so they can't receive any mailings (about employment)?" the Aiken Republican asked.
The General Assembly would have to change the law, answered the commission's deputy executive director, Allen Larson.
Lawmakers are expected to continue work this month on S. 391, which restructures the commission.
In the coming weeks, Mr. Ryberg's staff will also be trying to determine how many job seekers assisted by the commission are matched with temporary positions instead of permanent jobs.
South Carolina is among about half a dozen states that have exhausted unemployment funds and had to seek federal assistance.
Much of the debate in Columbia has centered on what commissioners knew about the declining trust fund. But lawmakers stressed Wednesday that they are more interested in helping the unemployed than in assigning blame to members of the Employment Security Commission.
Reach Sarita Chourey at (803) 727-4257 or firstname.lastname@example.org.