Leaders of area cities and towns are praising the recommendations of a task force that urges the state to close loopholes that have allowed some untenured teachers, crossing guards, and municipal retirees to collect extra benefits and pay through the unemployment compensation system.
“They covered a lot of good issues,” Dedham Town Administrator William Keegan Jr. said. “Obviously, there’s going to be additional time to actually sort through that information and find out where it comes out in the final analysis, but the things they highlighted are things we’re interested in.”
In February, Keegan was one of 24 cosigners of a letter sent by municipal officials from around the state to Governor Deval Patrick, detailing various questionable scenarios in which employees sought and received unemployment benefits. The letter asked for the governor’s help to address the situation.
In response, the state asked for feedback from all 351 cities and towns and put together the Municipal Unemployment Insurance Task Force to deal with issues that included that of a retired police officer who received a pension, worked details, and collected unemployment benefits; school bus drivers and crossing guards who collected unemployment benefits during vacations and other days off; and teachers who received notification in the spring that they might be laid off and collected unemployment benefits all summer before they were rehired in September.
The 44-page report, released last month, reviewed several types of cases, and recommends multifaceted solutions that include changes to the law and best practices that cities and towns can use. The report is available online at the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development website, www.mass.gov/lwd.
“What I think we have done is taken a problem that was brought to our attention and [come] up with a comprehensive analysis, conclusions, and recommendations,” said Joanne Goldstein, secretary of the state agency, who chaired the task force, which also included Newton Mayor Setti Warren, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, Representative David Torrisi, Senator Dan Wolf, Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Association, retired Appeals Court judge Raya Dreben, Paul Toner of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and Jenn Springer of the AFL-CIO.
The recommendations include:
■ A legislative change that would no longer allow retirees who return to work for their previous public sector employer to collect unemployment if their annual pension is $53,920 or higher, because their pension offset would be the same as or greater than their unemployment benefit.
■ Employees who work at schools but are not paid by schools — such as crossing guards — would become ineligible to collect unemployment benefits during vacations.
■ Teachers who are informed in the spring they may not be hired back in the fall remain eligible for unemployment insurance, but under a new system being implemented by the Division of Unemployment Assistance, those benefits will stop if teachers receive notification they have been rehired for a comparable position by their current school district or another school district.
“I think everybody came to the table with the idea to come up with solutions that are fair to folks who need unemployment insurance,” said Driscoll, whose city has paid out unemployment benefits to seasonal workers at the city-owned golf course during the winter. “It’s a valuable tool if you’ve been unemployed through no fault of your own. You need to have that safety net, but you certainly don’t want it to be abused.”
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association — a collective of municipal leaders throughout the state — was among those who applauded the report.
“The comprehensive approach of offering statutory, administrative, and best practices changes in order to deal with this issue and save communities and taxpayers money is impressive,” he said. “The task force did a terrific job of identifying the major problems and the best ways to approach and solve those problems to the benefit of taxpayers.”
Municipal claims make up only .5 percent of all unemployment claims in the state, but municipal officials said that over 351 cities and towns, the figure adds up.
They also note that since cities and towns generally self-fund their unemployment benefits rather than pay into the state system, any money paid to unemployed workers comes directly from the town budget.
They also say that while many claims are valid, the dubious ones create a bad public image of municipal employees.
“It does if it’s used in a way that’s meant to take advantage of the system as opposed to using it for the right purposes,” said Keegan. “Nobody will object to a person who is rightfully entitled to unemployment if their position is eliminated or there is no work for them beyond a certain date. The focus of concern is all of the ones that fall into those gaps.”
Foxborough Town Manager Kevin Paicos noted that his town has made adjustments to hiring practices based on unemployment concerns, such as hiring for seasonal positions only college students who plan to return to school in the fall.
“If they’re not a student going back to school, we don’t hire them, period,” Paicos said, “which frankly is a shame, because there probably are a whole lot of out-of-work people who’d love to have a seasonal job, and we’d love to give them to them. The problem is, it opens us up to gigantic unemployment claims, and it’s not going to happen. So, it’s good for the college kids but lousy for the average middle-class man or woman who is out of work.”
While Paicos said he was happy to receive the response from the task force, he noted that he’d be most thankful for simpler laws that would require less administrative time to maintain.
“We’d like to have some rational application of common sense to unemployment law in a way that any thinking taxpayer would embrace without the requirement for epically involved administration.”