ONCE, WE'LL CALL it an understandable glitch; human involvement means mistakes, and when those human beings are administering a too-regulation-heavy program that relies on bulky computer programs, there will be even more mistakes.
But the state Employment Security Commission's second extra-check slip-up in four months is just a bit much to excuse. The good news is that only 150 duplicate unemployment checks were sent out before officials caught the error; in July, it was 1,250.
This isn't simply a paperwork error that causes a little inconvenience. Anyone who cashes a duplicate unemployment check is responsible for reimbursing the money. That requirement makes good sense, but it can create a real hardship for someone who is barely getting by, as people who have been laid off tend to be.
That's bad enough under normal circumstances, but the timing of last month's glitch increased the chance that recipients cashed the extra check before they found out they weren't supposed to. That's because the duplicate checks were delivered on the heels of news that thousands of extra checks would be mailed out because the Legislature passed a law to make residents eligible for extended federal unemployment benefits that they were being denied. It's easy to see how people would think that's what the duplicate check actually was.
Problems at the Employment Security Commission are nothing new. It was a breathtaking error in judgment that forced lawmakers to come back to town last month to fix our law, which they should have been able to address before the problem became a problem. But when the Legislature resumes the debate about reforming this agency, some will insist that only minor changes are needed. We wish that were so.
While we disagree strongly with those who try to blame the agency for the high cost of unemployment checks - a problem borne of our high unemployment rate, which is caused by forces largely outside of the commission's control - the fact is that this agency has significant problems built into its DNA: Its director reports to three full-time commissioners, for whom there are no job requirements and who are elected by the Legislature (of which all were members at the time of their election) and cannot be removed from those cushy, no-qualifications-required jobs until their terms end. The commission, in other words, is the very definition of a political patronage system. And yet it is tasked with operating what is essentially a massive insurance agency that is governed by a complex set of federal and state laws that most legislators don't understand well enough to properly monitor.
All of which is to say the Employment Security Commission long has been a crisis waiting to happen. And when the worst recession in decades slammed into leaders who were trained not to run an agency but to navigate the backroom political-deals culture that they brought with them from the State House, that crisis occurred: a drained trust fund that most lawmakers didn't see coming, a completely avoidable stand-off with an admittedly mulish governor, then the director's refusal to tell the Legislature it needed to tweak state law to make sure federal jobless benefits came to the state. The computer glitches are minor by comparison. But they're an important reminder that this agency needs to be fixed. And sooner rather than later.