The State Worker

The State Worker: Unemployment claim referees fighting for their own jobs

Jon Ortiz
Jon Ortiz

Many of the referees who judge unemployment claim disputes will soon be out of a job if a plan goes through to ax more than four dozen of their positions in a few months.

The state Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board has sent layoff notices to about half of the 300 or so judges who rule on unemployment benefit disputes between employers and their former employees. A third of them would be whacked by Sept. 1 unless they can transfer to open positions or “bump” junior colleagues who would then have to find a job.

Federal funding for the agency is based on the number of cases it closes. Next year, the appeal workload will decline 11.4 percent, according to a layoff plan approved by the Brown administration. That will be down 26 percent from its height at the peak of the recession, board Executive Director Elena Gonzales said. Federal revenue, the agency’s lifeblood, will fall by $13.8 million.

According to the layoff plan, the board has imposed hiring freezes, reduced overtime, cut travel – all the usual moves departments make to curb expenses.

“The agency’s staffing pattern and workload have historically been countercyclical to the broader economy,” Gonzales said.

So here’s the algebra: Fewer appeals + current number of judges – federal money = too many judges.

More than a dozen judges from around the state showed up at a board meeting this week and made emotional pleas to preserve positions.

One of them, Susan Lee, noted that the layoffs would return staffing to 2008 levels. At the time, the state had been under federal pressure for seven years to quicken the pace of appealed-case decisions. It finally met standards last November, 12 years after the feds first hammered the laggardly pace of the agency’s appeals process.

Lee said that the state got out from under the federal thumb because judges now often hear cases and render decisions the same day, taking on more work than their contracts require.

“The employees who did the most work to bring the state back into federal compliance,” Lee told the board, “are now the very same workers who are being tossed aside.”

The judges also point out that state data show that the number of new appeals during the first quarter of this year was up nearly 10 percent compared with the first three months of 2008, when the Great Recession was picking up steam.

And they note that Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a $67.6 million boost in state funding next year for the Employment Development Department. The governor earmarked the money to speed up unemployment claims processing, beef up phone banks and boost online response after federal funding was cut. So why ax money at the next level up?

Board Chairman Robert Dresser said Tuesday that the panel wouldn’t comment or answer questions about the layoffs, since the judges’ union is in contract talks with the Brown administration.

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