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Awaiting the Big California Payoff

July 14, 1985|JANICE MALL

In the first month of the application period, only one in 10 eligible Californians has applied for what could be several hundred dollars per individual in retroactive state unemployment benefits.

The state owes $26 million in retroactive benefits to 115,000 people, almost all of them women, and is continuing a campaign to let these women know that they may apply for their share any time up to Aug. 31 at any Post Office.

It has taken 14 years in the courts to come to a time when checks are in the offing. The case, resulting in one of the largest payoffs of retroactive benefits in California history, began with a 36-year-old drive-in waitress and mother of four and her attorneys from the small town of McFarland, north of Bakersfield.

The affected women were victims of the state's "domestic quit law," which was thrown out by the State Court of Appeals in 1977 as the result of a lawsuit, which became a class action, filed by Betty Ann Boren, a Kern County waitress who earned $110 every two weeks at a drive-in in Delano.

Far-Reaching Results

Boren's salary supplemented her husband's $450-a-month income as a ranch hand. She lost her job, a 5 a.m. shift, because she couldn't find a sitter for her baby daughter. Boren maintains that she was replaced on her job and never quit, but the case turned out to have far-reaching results for women who have to quit a job for reasons such as lack of child care.

When Boren applied for unemployment benefits, she was denied under a section of the California Unemployment Insurance Code that disqualified applicants who were not the sole or major support of their families and had been forced to quit their jobs for reasons relating to their families.

After Boren's appeal to the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board was rejected, she filed suit with the aid of attorneys at California Rural Legal Assistance in McFarland. After another loss--her suit was dismissed by the Sacramento County Superior Court in 1976--she won her case on appeal. In 1977, the state Court of Appeal found that the domestic quit law discriminated against women because 95% to 99% of the applicants who were denied benefits under the law were women. The law was found unconstitutional on the basis that it violated women's rights to equal protection and infringed on their rights to marry and care for their families. When the court found the law unconstitutional, the Legislature repealed it.

Certified as Class Action

At this point, Boren was a winner, but the case had accomplished nothing for thousands of other women who had been denied unemployment for similar reasons. In 1977, Boren's attorneys, Richard M. Pearl and Charles Elsesser, asked that the Boren case be certified as a class action. Sacramento Superior Court ruled in their favor, but the state's Employment Development Department appealed and won, partly on the basis that finding all of those entitled to money would be an undue burden on the state. The California Supreme Court thought differently, and ended the case by ruling unanimously in 1981 in favor of the class action.

Then began four years of negotiating as to how much money would be made available and who would be eligible. A system for applications and payment had to be set up.

Betty Ann Boren received her retroactive benefits, $895, in 1983, Through negotiations, a fund of $26 million was established to pay others, almost all women, who were unjustly denied benefits.

"It made me feel a lot better to know it was not just me and not just waitresses," Boren told The Times. "I hope the ladies get their forms and fill them out if they have it coming." Asked how she felt about beginning a case that became a landmark, Boren, who now works as a cook for the Delano Union School District, said, "I'm just the same, same working girl. I haven't changed."

Fill Out the Application

To be eligible for the money, a person must have been denied unemployment benefits between Aug. 22, 1968, and Dec. 31, 1976, on the basis of having had to quit a job because of marriage, pregnancy, care of a family member (this would include care of an elderly or disabled adult as well as a child) or a spouse's job transfer. The applicant does not need her own evidence. She need only completely fill out the application available at Post Offices (Postal employees can't answer questions) and return it postmarked by Aug. 31. The state will provide the evidence of eligibility from its unemployment files.

Applications in English and Spanish are displayed in Post Offices in a holder labeled, "For Women, It Pays to Apply."

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