Report targets municipal unemployment benefit loopholes
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A report from the task force charged with reforming what many consider to be loopholes in the municipal unemployment system is receiving praise from officials who brought their concerns to light earlier this year.
“I’m very pleased,” said Bill Gustus, the town administrator from Lynnfield who started the process after an online discussion with other state finance officers who compared cases they’d dealt with within the system.
The case that spurred Gustus involved retired Lynnfield police officer Hartley Boudreau, who turns 71 this month and receives a $36,192 annual pension. State law allows him to earn up to $25,000 in police details, after which earnings are subtracted from his pension.
When the town told Gustus in August 2011 that he had earned more than $26,000 and additional detail pay would come from his pension for the rest of the year, he applied for unemployment. He was awarded the unemployment benefits, in addition to collecting his pension and the $25,000 he had made earlier that year.
In February, citing that case and various questionable scenarios in which employees sought and received unemployment benefits, Gustus and 23 other finance officers from various communities sent a letter to Governor Deval Patrick asking for help.
The cosigners included officials from Andover, Boxford, Lowell, and Peabody.
Besides Boudreau, the letter and subsequent information gathered from municipalities around the state listed examples such as school bus drivers and crossing guards who collected unemployment benefits during vacations and other days off; and teachers — who work on 10-month contracts — who received notification in the spring that they might be laid off, collecting unemployment benefits all summer befoe being rehired in September.
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 the issues.
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, 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 that also included Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll; state Representative David Torrisi of North Andover; Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation; retired appeals court judge Raya Dreben; Paul Toner of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and Jennifer Springer of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.
■ A legislative proposal that would no longer allow retirees who return to work for their previous long-term public sector employer to collect unemployment if their annual pension is $53,920 or higher, because their pension offset would be the same or greater than their unemployment benefit. A proportionate offset would be applied to retirees earning less.
■ A legislative proposal that addresses employees who work at schools but are not paid by schools — such as crossing guards — who would become ineligible to collect unemployment benefits during school vacations.
■ Non-tenured teachers who are informed in the spring they will not be hired back in the fall remain potentially eligible for unemployment insurance, but under a new system being implemented by the Department 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. Continued...