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GUEST COLUMN: Colorado's Unemployment Insurance Division could be in trouble

By: Jeffrey Martin
May 10, 2014 Updated: May 10, 2014 at 8:45 am
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When the Colorado General Assembly is in session, the state's employers tend to worry a little more than usual about their well-being. After all, they never know when some solution-minded legislator in search of a problem may strike.

This current session was no exception. It saw Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, introduce a bill that would have provided unemployment benefits to workers who quit one job to take another, but then found that their new job did not work out.

For this implausible legislation to work, the state's Unemployment Insurance Division (UI) would have needed to develop ingenious, perhaps even acrobatic, techniques for assessing the financial burden on previous employers for whom the claimants worked before losing their new jobs. Although Melton's sympathies for the unemployed are laudable, his understanding of the labor market leaves much to be desired.

It's not a risk-free zone. A fall from the career ladder is not protected by a trampoline. And a previous employer cannot be expected to assume any financial responsibility - via a change in UI tax rates - for the voluntary actions of a former employee.

It's not just Colorado employers who dodged a bullet when Melton's bill went nowhere. So did Gov. John Hickenlooper. After all, he was spared the task of making an executive decision about a program that seems to interest him very little, if at all.

Hickenlooper's lack of concern about the program has become painfully obvious. Case in point: Early last year, the UI division hired a well-qualified call center manager from the private sector. This respected professional was tasked with improving the standards of the division's call center, particularly as they related to wait times endured by claimants and employers. Within a short period, this new manager delivered something that state workers seldom encounter: results. Wait times went down, and callers spent measurably less time languishing on hold.

Oddly, a small group of managers at the UI office found fault with these improvements. Suddenly, they were required to makes changes - changes that ruffled their feathers. Instead of adjusting to new ideas, these managers lobbied Colorado Unemployment Insurance Director Jeffrey Fitzgerald to terminate the call center manager.

Unfortunately, their campaign worked. Fitzgerald terminated the results-generating new hire for "failing to persuade managers to adopt the new changes implemented."

The aftermath of this baffling decision was predictable: Caller wait times went up.

Measurably.

While the behavior of these managers is troubling enough, the reaction of the governor is downright alarming. During a radio call-in show, he was asked if his office intended to investigate the curious decision of his appointee. Hickenlooper's response? A vigorous denial of ever having met Fitzgerald, capped by a failure to offer any assurance that he would examine Fitzgerald's activities as UI director.

Think about it. The governor has never met his own UI director? Seriously? The evidence seems to differ. Before becoming UI director, Fitzgerald had been appointed by then Mayor Hickenlooper to serve as workforce development director for the city and county of Denver. What's more, Gov. Hickenlooper has been a featured speaker at two national UI conferences hosted by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, conferences attended by UI directors and commissioners from all over the country.

Is it possible that Hickenlooper found time to meet with scores of UI decision-makers from across the nation but did not bother to get to know the state's own director? True, the governor is a busy man, and he may not remember everybody he meets - even those whom he appoints.

But surely he can find the time to inquire about the controversial management decisions of one of his appointees, if only for the sake of the thousands of Coloradans who depend on the UI program.

Is this too much to ask? If it is, Colorado is in trouble. The state's public agencies will never be able to recruit or hire the most qualified employees. They will never be able to respond effectively to the marketplace realities that drive our economy. If the governor can't be bothered to ensure that his management corps is making sound decisions that reinforce accountability, the state might find itself in a pickle worthy of the unhinged Rep. Jovan Melton.

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Jeffrey J. Martin (jeffreymartin@employer emissaries.com) is a former deputy with the Colorado unemployment division and current president of Employer Emissaries, an unemployment insurance cost control company.

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