By Jennifer Wohlleb
By asking the right questions about a school district’s unemployment program, board members can help save their system time and money.
“You want to make sure that the people who are on your front lines – your finance officer and your human resource staff – have the tools they need,” said Steve Smith, KSBA’s chief financial officer. “You, as a board member, might ask, ‘What are our unemployment claims costs?’ And have them reported to you on a quarterly basis if they are material.”
Consistent and fair
Smith said board members should make sure the basics are being covered. Unemployment insurance is a joint federal and state program to provide temporary assistance to individuals who are unemployed through no fault of their own. In many circumstances there can be a high threshold of proof required of employers to defeat a claim for benefits by a former employee.
“On the front end, you want to make sure that you have written personnel policies and you want to make sure that you get written acknowledgements that your employees have read and understood those policies,” Smith said.
It is important to make sure those policies are being applied fairly and consistently.
“If you’re not doing that, then it’s kind of like not having a policy because people will be able to say, ‘You did it for her, you didn’t do it for me. What’s the deal?’” he said. “It’s got to be consistently applied in a fair manner.”
Document, document, document
Make sure all disciplinary actions are written down, fully detailed, and that district policies are being followed.
“You have to warn in writing, always, and make sure you put the specifics down, names and dates and have the employee sign it,” Smith said. “Make sure other previous disciplinary actions are there that are related to it.”
Smith used an employee who missed or was tardy for work 20 days as an example of how a district can either handle a case appropriately and win, or drop the ball and have to pay a claim for unemployment insurance.
“If you say, ‘You’ve missed 20 times in a row and I know I haven’t said anything about it, but this 20th time, I’m done with it. I’m fed up, you’re out of here,’” Smith said. “Well, there are lots of rules about ‘Last Straw’ events; why didn’t you do anything the first 19 times? What made that last one worse? You’ve got to be proactive, leave a paper trail about what were your warnings; what did you tell them; did you put them on notice; did you give them a chance to reform their ways?”
KSBA unemployment specialist
MerryAnn Marshall said in Smith’s fictitious example, if that employee were in an accident on his way to work on that 20th day or had a medical emergency, those situations are out of the employee’s control. Therefore, he would win his claim even if the previous 19 absences were unexcused.
“You have to document everything, and you need a policy about that and it has to be uniformly done,” said Marshall, who works with KSBA’s Unemployment Insurance program for school districts.
Time is money
Marshall said districts must respond to all claims in a timely manner.
“On the initial claim, you have a 15-day window from the time it’s mailed (to the district) to respond,” she said. “The personnel at the schools, if something comes to their office about unemployment, don’t leave it laying there. Send it on to central office so they can handle it, because they don’t know what to do with it at the local school.”
She said this can be a particular problem during summer breaks, so districts need a process to make sure all claims are handled properly.
“Respond to all the unemployment claims that you get,” Smith said. “You may not succeed in having claims denied in every instance, but sometimes you will. People will apply and you can be successful and respond, ‘Here’s why the person was let go, in writing.’ You have to provide the evidence to the Department of Unemployment; they have a level of evidence that is required and you have to respond to that and it’s easy to not get it done.”
Marshall said being prepared for the initial hearing is essential in making sure a district has its best chance to win at the outset.
“You want to win it at that very first level, so that while they are going through the appeals hearing process, the district is not getting charged,” she said. “And it’s hard to get that money back if you win the appeal.”
Lists and letters
Managing employees is the last line of defense. Districts should send out Letters of Reasonable Assurance to employees if possible.
“That letter tells employees that, ‘We’re getting ready to go on a scheduled break for summer, but we expect to provide you the same employment come fall,’” Smith said. “You need to provide that letter, otherwise your employee may not know they’re coming back and will file for unemployment and you’ve needlessly incurred those expenses.”
He said KSBA also has been encouraging districts to manage the size of their substitute teacher lists.
“If you let anybody and everybody be on there, that’s more potential claimants,” Smith said. “If you can limit the size with a list you can depend on and you will use, it will help your odds in limiting some of the claims that you may receive.”
Encourage good hiring practices on the front end to limit problems down the line.
“Make sure you test your people, make sure you look at their qualifications, are they suited to the job, references, all of those areas,” Smith said. “You also want to make sure as a board member that you ask if your people are getting the right kind of professional development in this area.”
He said both the Kentucky Association of School Business Officials and the Kentucky Association of School Human Resource Managers offer frequent training on unemployment topics.