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City Hall slips again; Karla Thomas error compounded by letting her collect jobless benefits

Mayor Byron W. Brown fired Karla L. Thomas for, among other things, allowing the city to waste hundreds of thousands of dollars paying health care premiums for 170 dead retirees. Months later, the mayor's bureaucrats allowed Thomas to collect her weekly jobless benefits despite the poor performance that left her unemployed.

Anyone see a pattern here?

Carelessness doesn't happen by accident. City Hall's slipshod ways can be traced to its failure to adopt a rudimentary set of policies and procedures for decisions about how to handle fired employees. It turns out that Thomas is not the only terminated employee to collect jobless benefits. City Hall allowed them even for a clerk who was fired after admitting she falsified birth documents.

City Hall appointees have long been selected for their contributions to the political machinery, not their skills as good and conscientious workers. Brown is hardly the first mayor to hire this way. But the Karla Thomas episode proves in Technicolor the dangers in filling an important post -- human resources commissioner -- with someone whose chief qualification was in serving the Grassroots political organization that gave the mayor his start.

New York's unemployment insurance system is both vital and confounding. It offers a lifeline to idled workers and their families. But should employers pay unemployment benefits to those who directly or indirectly provoke their terminations and are fired "with cause?" What constitutes "cause" anyway? Punching out a co-worker or general incompetence? One major screw-up, or a prolonged failure to meet the standards?

The system's overseers at the State Labor Department generally approve applications for jobless benefits, but then allow former employers to challenge the awards, because employers underwrite the payments. Amazingly, City Hall handles challenges on a case-by-case basis. Department heads selectively decide whether to contest a former employee's unemployment benefits -- assuming the right paperwork reaches their desks.

What if the city were to challenge unemployment benefits to all employees fired with cause and let the overlords of unemployment-insurance rule? It would end the crazy-quilt system in place now at City Hall. And it would have led city officials to challenge Thomas' application as a standard procedure. There would be no need to trot out a scapegoat, as the mayor's enforcers did by suspending Antoinette Palmer, the director of compensation and benefits. She might have failed to alert the right decision-makers to Thomas' quest for that $405 a week in unemployment benefits.

Thomas, you probably recall, had challenged her firing, leading to a more than $200,000 circus in which she emotionally confronted the mayor who let her go. In the end, her termination was upheld, which should have meant she isn't entitled to unemployment checks. Certainly, that conclusion would have sat well with the taxpayers who foot the bill. But the mayor never put in place a system to ensure that fired employees must justify their claims for unemployment.

Will he now?

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