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California corrections agency wrongly paid $1.3 million to fired workers

A watchdog report finds that the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation provided unemployment benefits to employees who were fired for misconduct.

March 31, 2009|Michael Rothfeld

SACRAMENTO — The state corrections department wrongly spent $1.3 million on unemployment benefits over two years for employees fired for misconduct, according to a report released Monday by an outside monitor.

A correctional officer who was fired after being arrested in a hit-and-run incident while driving drunk and refusing to cooperate with the California Highway Patrol received the maximum benefit of $11,700 for six months, according to Inspector General David Shaw.

Another prison guard who received the same benefit had been involved in a narcotics transaction in Tulare County, possessed a banned assault rifle and was affiliated with a prison gang, Shaw said. That officer was fired for "inexcusable neglect of duty, insubordination, dishonesty, willful disobedience and other failure of good behavior."

The Office of the Inspector General found that a third employee of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation received $9,875 in unemployment after she lost her job for failing to appear at work for 132 days -- roughly six months -- over a 15-month period.

In all, 186 of the 1,045 employees fired between 2006 and 2008 received unemployment benefits.

"Unemployment insurance benefits should be available for employees who have lost their jobs due to no fault of their own, not for employees terminated by CDCR for misconduct," Shaw said in a statement.

The payments to fired employees were nearly 25% of about $5.7 million the prison agency spent on unemployment benefits over that period.

"We are developing a corrective action plan as we speak," said Mary Fernandez, the undersecretary for administration at the corrections department.

Shaw said the problems arose in some cases because the department provided inadequate information to the Employment Development Department, which processes unemployment claims, about why workers were terminated. In other cases, the agency did not respond within adequate time frames or at all.

Loree Levy, a spokeswoman for the Employment Development Department, said fired employees are not automatically disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits. An employer must prove that an employee intentionally violated duty and intended to hurt the employer's interests. In some of the cases cited by Shaw, the Employment Development Department may not have had all the information when it approved benefits, Levy added.

The report said the corrections department rarely responds when given the opportunity to appeal benefits awarded by the Employment Development Department.

Nor do the two agencies have any central method of communication; the employment department has more than 50 separate points of contact at the corrections agency, many at individual prisons.

Fernandez said corrections officials plan to meet with administrators at the Employment Development Department so that notices about unemployment claims will no longer get sent to outdated contacts and get "lost in the mass of paperwork."

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michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

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