The Idaho Department of Labor took months to work through tens of thousands of unemployment claims from laid off workers that were languishing in a state of limbo through the spring and into the summer.
But even as it was trudging through its backlog, the department was also trying to claw back money it had paid out to hundreds of university employees who were furloughed, creating a bureaucratic headache for those involved.
Back in April, as Idaho was still under a statewide lockdown, businesses were taking steps to shore up their bottom line and universities weren’t any different.
All four-year schools in the state set up furlough programs requiring employees earning more than $40,000 per year to take unpaid time off, which could be offset by filing for unemployment. Boise State University required employees to take the days off during the summer months of May, June and July.
Staff at Boise State Public Radio were included in the university’s furlough program, as the school holds the station’s broadcasting license and its employees are considered state workers.
Kim Shively works as a management assistant at Boise State University’s College of Business and Economics and was one of many at the university who applied for unemployment benefits in June.
“If I wouldn’t have gotten it, I don’t think I would’ve been able to pay my mortgage that month because I am the only full-time working person in my household,” Shively said.
It was the first time she had filed for unemployment in her life.
But shortly after Shively had been paid, she got a letter from the Idaho Department of Labor suddenly telling her that she actually didn’t qualify and would have to return the money under penalty of law.
“I was really upset and then I threw it away,” she said.
The letter that she later dug out of the recycling bin said that she shouldn’t have gotten unemployment benefits because she applied for them during summer break – even though she’s not a faculty member and works full-time, year-round. It outlined an appeals process with a phone number to call and a deadline to contest the department’s decision.
In some cases, including my own and those of my coworkers at Boise State Public Radio, the date that the letter was sent and the deadline to submit an appeal were the very same day. In one case, the letter was mailed after the stated deadline had already passed.
None of the phone numbers listed in the letter directly connected callers hoping to file an appeal to the appropriate department within the agency. Voicemails left for the department were returned several days later.
Boise State President Marlene Tromp sent a letter to Idaho Department of Labor Director Jani Revier on Aug. 4 saying these determinations were made in error and that the only employees affected by the school’s furlough program at the time were full-time employees who work all 12 months of the year.
Spokespeople for Idaho State University and University of Idaho said they hadn’t heard of similar issues with their employees when contacted this summer.
Revier declined multiple requests for an interview by Boise State Public Radio through spokespeople.
But in a reply letter to Tromp dated Aug. 13, Revier said they’re required to deny these benefits based on a technicality in state law. It states that benefits can’t be paid to any person during a school break if they’re reasonably assured to keep their job after the break ends.
“The public policy concerns pointed out by you in your letter are matters for the Idaho Legislature to consider through amendments to the statute, if deemed appropriate,” Revier wrote.
But, she said, the department could take up appeals on a case-by-case basis.
That’s what Kim Shively did – and she won, which was a big relief for her.
“For me to pay that back would’ve been pretty rough,” she said.
But many others are still waiting to hear when they’ll have a hearing, all the while getting more letters saying the state could take legal action against them if they don’t pay back the benefits.
It was months before Corbin Harp heard back about his own appeal hearing, which he won earlier this month. He’s a financial manager at Boise State’s College of Business and Economics.
Harp said he supports the department trying to root out unemployment fraud, but that this isn’t one of those cases.
He’s concerned about the amount of staff time and taxpayer money that’s going toward resolving these disputes.
“I can’t imagine the amount of paperwork going through [the department of labor’s] system right now for all of us that have this, all the mail being sent out, all the people calling them, contacting them,” Harp said.
As of Thursday morning, 64 Boise State employees have had appeals — nearly all of them successful.
But the Idaho Department of Labor has begun appealing those decisions made by its own hearing officer to the Idaho Industrial Commission, according to the university's human resources department, which is now using its legal team to defend its employees. A labor department spokeswoman didn't return a request for comment.
Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.
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