Newton mayor to serve on unemployment panel
Newton Mayor Setti Warren is one of the members of the newly created Department of Unemployment Assistance’s task force on municipalities, which is part of a state effort to investigate and reform the municipal unemployment compensation system.
“I was honored to be chosen by Governor Patrick as a member of this team,’’ Warren wrote in an e-mail commenting on his new role. “Newton, like many communities across the Commonwealth, needs to take a close look at reforming this area of government. I look forward to working toward a set of recommendations to make municipal and state government more accountable and cost-effective.’’
The task force is part of a response to the letter authored last month by Lynnfield Town Administrator Bill Gustus and signed by 23 other municipal officials. The letter listed cases where unemployment compensation was awarded under potentially dubious circumstances.
The officials cited situations that permitted a public safety employee to take mandatory retirement at age 65 and then collect unemployment compensation, and allowed bus drivers to get unemployment during school vacations or vacation days.
Also, they pointed out scenarios in which teachers who were still under contract but faced potential layoff in the fall took lump-sum salary payments in June for the summer months, collected unemployment for July and August, and then resumed teaching in September.
The department also selected Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, Paul Toner from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Massachusetts AFL-CIO executive vice president Jenn Springer, and Michael Widmer, with the Massachusetts Taxpayers Association, for the task force.
The effort will be chaired by Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development’s secretary, Joanne Goldstein, whose agency oversees the Department of Unemployment Assistance. The department plans to announce one more member this week; the task force’s two remaining members are to be named by House Speaker Robert DeLeo and the Senate’s president, Therese Murray.
The task force will consider issues around municipal employees receiving unemployment insurance benefits, particularly relating to those cited in the letter, and others that the department develops from reviewing submissions from the state’s 351 cities and towns.
According to Goldstein, the department had received responses from 64 communities, referring to 237 cases.
According to department spokeswoman Alison Harris, the five issues referred to most frequently were:
■ Retirees who work for municipalities as so-called “960-hour employees’’ and apply for unemployment benefits after they reach their hour or wage limits. (Governor Deval Patrick recently filed legislation to address the issue.)
■ Public safety employees who retire at the mandatory retirement age of 65 and then apply for unemployment benefits.
■ Teachers who apply for unemployment benefits during the summer until they begin teaching again in the fall, or other school employees (such as bus drivers or crossing guards) who apply for benefits during vacations and other days when there is no school.
■ Status of unemployment claims by those who are employed part time or intermittently by a municipality. This might include call firefighters or EMTs.
■ Seasonal employees, in some cases, who receive unemployment benefits during other times of the year.
“Cities and towns have brought to us individual cases that may have a slightly different issue, but it’s unique to that case, so we don’t count that as a trend or a theme,’’ Goldstein said.
The department has also promised an internal investigation of cases, procedures, and practices within the system, and was scheduled to hold a public meeting with municipal officers earlier this week at the Boston Public Library.
“I applaud the secretary’’ for putting the task force together, said Widmer, who lives in Belmont. “A lot of these issues are complicated, and need a closer look. This gives us the opportunity to ferret out legal abuses of the system, and uses that are not part of the system’s purpose.’’
David Rattigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.