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Murder in the Office : At Best, Life in an Unemployment Office Is Frustrating. Workers in Garden Grove Said Their Boss Made It Intolerable. No One Listened Until It Was Too Late.

August 03, 1986|NANCY WRIDE and MARIA L. LAGANGA | Nancy Wride and Maria L. La Ganga are Times staff writers based in Orange County. Times staff writer Steve Emmons contributed to this report

Several months after an employee threatened to kill him--and more than three years before another actually did--Louis Zuniga, manager of the state Employment Development Department (EDD) office in East Los Angeles, was transferred to his last assignment, in Garden Grove. Zuniga, who carried with him the reputation of a man disliked and feared, wasted no time in living up to his image.

Soon after arriving, he gathered the employees in the Garden Grove office and told them that he had been sent "to clean up the place." He told them that within the department he was known as "The Assassin." One worker recalled: "That was the first meeting with us. That set the tone."

Things got worse. To boost productivity in an office that he said was lagging behind others in the state, Zuniga demanded that caseload quotas be raised. To erase a backlog, he canceled Christmas vacations.

Others had their own stories: Displeased with a clerk who was a union shop steward, Zuniga reassigned her to dust shelves. To discourage tardiness, he would often stand at the door, red pen in hand, marking down everyone who was even a few seconds late. Fearful of the confrontation, latecomers often just turned around in the parking lot, went home and called in sick.

But in Sacramento, where the EDD is governed, Zuniga had a good reputation. "His production at our offices was one of the best," says Kay Kiddoo, EDD's director. Some of his Garden Grove workers also were impressed. One described Zuniga as "brilliant." Says Robert McLaren, a Cal State Fullerton professor of child development who first met Zuniga at a 1969 Orange County poverty seminar: "I was so impressed with his zeal for wanting to help people. One phrase he used over and over again was, 'Job security is one of the most important facts of life. If a person is insecure about his job and in his work, it may make him insecure in everything else in life.' One thing he said was, 'I see my job in life to make people feel good about themselves.' "

Yet tensions gradually rose over the course of Zuniga's 3 1/2-year tenure in Garden Grove. Employees complained of inhumane treatment. Grievances were filed. Paramedics were even called to treat workers who had collapsed on the job--one week they were called three times. Four of the six employees treated by paramedics under Zuniga's tenure had no identifiable health problems and said they had buckled under stress. Their symptoms included faintness, chest pains and muscle strains.

Then came Monday, March 31, the day after Easter.

Just after 7 that morning, as employees were coming to work, Zuniga summoned Fidel Gonzalez Jr., a longtime EDD job agent, to his glass-enclosed office at the back of the building.

A few quiet words were exchanged. Then, without warning, Gonzalez, 53, pulled a new .38-caliber revolver from his pocket and shot the 50-year-old Zuniga three times. Quickly, Gonzalez turned the gun to his own temple and fired once.

Within seconds, the two men, whose lives had intertwined for nearly 20 years, lay dead in Zuniga's blood-splashed office, sprawled six feet apart .

Inside the Garden Grove bureau, there was shock, revulsion--and relief. According to one employee, a group of Garden Grove workers called their counterparts in East Los Angeles and said, "Come join us for a drink. Zuniga's dead."

And yet, Zuniga's funeral service at a cavernous La Habra church was standing room only, filled with friends, relatives and colleagues.

fter the killings, flowers were placed on the desks of the two men. And staffers felt free to talk. What emerged was a grim portrait of brutal working conditions, the indifference of a state bureaucra cy and union bungling that goes far beyond the strife of Zuniga's tenure in Orange County.

Working for the Employment Development Department is never easy. All over California, streams of people short on money and opportunity pour daily into EDD offices to look for work, apply for benefits, appeal the denial of aid or prove that they are still out of work.

But the Garden Grove shootings underscored wider problems in an agency whose staff of 10,000 is chronically under stress. The state Legislature recently adopted a proposal to computerize EDD, although legislative analysts said it was inadequately researched. With automation came job insecurity and staff cutbacks. State budget tightening has added pressure on all EDD workers and managers.

"It's a no-win job," says Cecily Law, one of several employees in the Garden Grove office who determines which applicants will get unemployment pay and which won't. "Somebody always hates you."

Sometimes the hatred turns violent:

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